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Legion baseball: Rowan pushed to the brink of elimination by High Point

It's "backs against the wall" for Rowan Legion team

James Sipes file photo/for the Salisbury Post …
Rowan pitcher Bryson Wagner, left, and catcher Trevor Atwood discuss strategy during a recent American Legion basebal game. Rowan faces elimination tonight at High Point in the Area III semifinal series.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

THOMASVILLE — Saturday night’s southpaw pitching matchup between Rowan County’s Daniel Durham and High Point’s Landen Smith appeared to favor High Point.

Durham, a rising senior, was 3-3 for West Rowan High, while Smith was 4-1 as a UNC Pembroke freshman. But Durham held his own. On the mound, the teams couldn’t have been any more even.

Both hurlers were closing in on the American Legion pitch count limit of 105 when the game abruptly ended. Smith, the winner, threw 102 pitches. Durham became the losing hurler on his 103rd pitch, a 1-and-1 offering to High Point No. 3 hitter Dalton Ward.

Ward lined it to center field for the walk-off single that scored speedy Mark McLamb from second base for a tense, 5-4 High Point victory.

“Daniel gave us a shot and he’d pitched so well that he deserved the chance to win it or lose it,” Rowan head coach Jim Gantt said.

High Point leads the best-of-five Area III semifinal series two games to one. The difference between the teams has been the gloves, not the arms. Rowan has made 13 errors in three games, while High Point (18-7) has made five. That defensive discrepancy has been difficult for Rowan, which managed to split the first two games of the series at Newman Park, to overcome.

Now Rowan (26-8) can’t lose again. Game 4 is tonight at Finch Field at 6 p.m., and Rowan has to win it just to force a decisive Game 5. If Rowan can get to Game 5, it would be played at Newman Park. Rowan will send Hayden Setzer (4-1) to the mound tonight. Setzer hasn’t pitched in the playoffs. He’ll be fresh, but he also may be rusty.

If Rowan can get to Game 5, John Owen, who threw 80 pitches in winning Game 1 on Thursday, will take the ball.

“High Point has good college arms and a good lineup, but the biggest thing is that we have to take care of the baseball better than we have so far,” Gantt said. “Durham pitched well enough to win, but we put ourselves in a hole.”

High Point got on top in the bottom of the first. McLamb and Tyrese Hearst reached on errors and pulled off a double steal on a first-and-third situation with two men out. Hearst drew a throw to second, and McLamb slid home safely.

Rowan was down 3-0 before it broke through in the fourth against Smith. Setzer, who also made a fine catch in left field, came through with a big, two-out hit, a two-run smash to center that scored Wayne Mize and Luke Barringer.

Trailing 4-2, Rowan got even in the fifth. Atwood and Barringer had doubles in the inning. Rowan tied the game 4-all when Owen bounced a grounder into the hole with runners at second and third. Barringer was tagged out, trying to advance to third, but Lippard was able to score before the tag.

Durham kept it 4-all in the fifth and sixth.

Smith matched him. He got Rowan out quickly in the sixth and pitched around an error in the seventh.

In the bottom of the seventh, Owen made a charging, barehand play on a bunt to start the inning. The runner was called out, but it was close enough that High Point coach Rob Shore argued. Durham got the second out routinely, but then McLamb reached on what was ruled an error on Rowan first baseman Chandler Lippard. It was close enough at first that Gantt argued.

The next hitter, Tyrese Hearst lined a clean single to right to move McLamb to second base. He scored the game-winner from there when Ward delivered his walk-off blow.

“That was a tough call that put the leadoff man on base in the seventh, but the umpire called it like he saw it and that’s all you can ask,” Gantt said. “Even after they got that man on, they had to get two straight hits with two outs, and they did that. That’s a good team. They got those key hits.”

Those key hits by Hearst and Ward placed Rowan’s remarkable run of recent Legion success in jeopardy. Rowan reached the state tournament in 2017. Rowan won regional and state titles in 2016 on its way to a runner-up finish in the World Series. In 2015, Rowan won Area III and the state. You have to go back to 2014 to find a year in which Rowan didn’t make the state. That year Rowan fell to Winston-Salem in the Area III semifinals.

As the host team, High Point is assured of an automatic berth in the upcoming state tournament, but it would like to arrive there as the state champion, a title that has proven elusive for Post 87, despite powerhouse clubs.

Rowan knew coming in that it was in a tougher than usual position. Most years, the Area III runner-up qualifies for the state tournament (as Rowan did in 2016 and 2017), but not this time. Rowan has to win this series, plus the Area III championship series to qualify for the state event. That’s a hard road, although Gantt isn’t complaining.

“That’s the way it used to be,” Gantt said. “And that’s the way it should be.”

Rowan              000  220  0    —  4  6  3

High Point      120   100  1      —  5   7  1

W — L. Smith. L — Durham (3-1).

HR — None.

Leading hitters — Rowan: Setzer 2-for-4, 2 RBIs. High Point: Ward 2-for-4, RBI.

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