Legion Baseball: Rowan’s season ends with midnight madness
By Mike London
THOMASVILLE — Rowan County American Legion coach Jim Gantt has seen a lot of games decided on the last play, but he’d never experienced anything quite like this.
Shelby Post 82 had the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, with one out and with Rowan clinging desperately to a 3-2 lead, in an American Legion state tournament semifinal at Finch Field.
Shelby’s No. 5 -hitter Luke Scism lashed a clutch hit off Rowan closer Bryson Wagner’s 0-and-1 delivery, driving a hard groundball through the right side. Rowan right fielder Hayden Setzer has a powerful arm. He charged and came up firing. His aim was true.
Colby Ferguson, running from third base, scored to tie the game, but Logan McNeely, carrying the winning run from second base, put on the brakes on as he rounded third base. They were holding him up.
Cutoff man Chandler Lippard, Rowan’s slugging first baseman, was positioned where he was supposed to be, but Setzer’s laser glanced off Lippard’s mitt and careened sideways, straight toward the dugout. McNeely headed home with the walk-off run, and Shelby beat Rowan, 4-3, in a remarkably strange game that began right on time at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening, but ended, with the unwanted assistance of a three-hour rain delay, at 12:28 a.m.
“We had our season end in the state tournament last year on a botched rundown play, something I’d never seen in my life, and now this,” Gantt said. “We’d love to win that last game one of these years, but maybe this one just wasn’t meant to be. Setzer made a strong throw. Our pitcher (Wagner) was where he was supposed to be, backing up the plate. The last thing you expect is for a ball to go in the direction that it went in. There’s no one to back that up.”
Rowan’s season ended at 33-12, while Shelby (31-3) earned the right to play Wilmington today at 4 p.m. at Finch Field for the state championship. Wilmington finished off a relatively routine semifinal conquest of Pitt County at 6 p.m., so it will have a serious rest advantage today.
In a normal world, Rowan’s Maddux Holshouser, a Carson grad headed to UNC Greensboro, and Shelby’s Dalton Putnam, a Burns High star who is bound for Lenoir-Rhyne, would have staged a 2-1 duel that was over in two hours, but Legion ball is rarely normal.
Setzer, who leads off for Rowan, creamed a 3-and-1 pitch with the game just under way and pulled a screamer over the 330-foot marker in right field for his seventh homer of the summer. Rowan led immediately, and when Holshouser started flinging lefty bullets, there were some people who thought that one run might be enough.
Rowan came out swinging and would’ve gotten more runs in the top of the first, but Shelby left fielder Will Stites made a terrific play that was a game-changer. He caught Trevor Atwood’s liner with a fearless dive. Clayton Gilmore, running from second base, was sure Atwood had produced a hit, and he was doubled off.
Rowan stranded two more men in the third but still led 1-0 behind Holshouser.
“Maddux was throwing hard tonight, as hard as I’ve seen him,” Gantt said. “His velocity was giving Shelby trouble. The first time through their batting order, they were having a hard time just putting it in play.”
That was true enough. Holshouser did walk three in his two innings of work, but he also struck out three and he erased one of those walks with a pickoff.
As Holshouser took the mound for the bottom of the third, rain arrived. The tarp went down and stayed down, as rain peppered Finch Field and lightning flashed. Play stopped at 7:44. It didn’t resume until 10:42.
Coaches had to make complex decisions. Three hours was a very long time. Their starters had thrown dozens of high-pressure pitches already. Then they’d had to sit around, their arms stiffening, their shoulders tightening like someone had inserted a screwdriver.
Holshouser had launched 44 pitches in two innings. He may have had another 60 in him, but Gantt shook his head and didn’t put him back to the mound.
“Maddux said he felt OK, and to his credit, he would have gone back out there and he wanted to go back out there,” Gantt said. “But I felt like taking him out was what I needed to do for him. Maddux has done a good job for us, and we want to send him off to UNC Greensboro with a fair shot at being good for them.”
Shelby stuck with Putnam, who showed a lot of guts and a rubber right arm. If anything, he was sturdier and stronger after the rain delay. There was no way to logically explain that, but it happened.
“After the rain delay, when Shelby saw Maddux was out of the game, their whole demeanor changed,” Gantt said. “They were fired up.”
Shelby got the tying run home in the third against Rowan’s first reliever — young lefty Daniel Sell. Ben Ledbetter drove in that run with a two-out single, and it was 1-all.
Rowan’s simple gameplan had been for Holshouser to get the game to the sixth, with Wagner taking over from there. But with Holshouser’s night ending so early, unsung guys were asked to build the bridge to Wagner. They did their jobs in the biggest game of their lives. Sell got Rowan through the third. Carsen Bailey relieved Sell and got Rowan through the fourth, with the help of third baseman John Owen, who snagged a popped up bunt and turned it into a double play.
When Bailey allowed a lead-off double in the fifth, Cameron Graham was the next man up. McNeely punched the run-scoring single off Graham that provided Shelby with a 2-1 lead.
Putnam was understandably tiring by the sixth, but that’s when he did his most critical hurling. Lippard had doubled to start that inning, and Awood’s HBP and Wayne Mize’s walk loaded the bases with none out. Rowan needed contact, but Putnam won three straight battles. He struck out Luke Barringer, Owen and C.P. Pyle to slam the door on Rowan and preserve that narrow, one-run lead.
“Our bullpen did a really good job of keeping us close,” Gantt said. “They gave us every chance to win it, but we just didn’t do a good enough job on offense.”
Wagner relieved Graham in the sixth and put up a zero with the help of a 4-6-3 double play. Shelby still led 2-1 going to the seventh.
That’s when Putnam was approaching the 105-pitch limit for one night. Wagner greeted him in the seventh with a single. Setzer, who finished the season on a 9-for-14 tear, singled on Putnam’s 104th pitch, and Shelby turned to the bullpen. Rowan didn’t stop. Gilmore reached on an outfield error to load the bases with no outs. When Lippard was struck by a pitch, Rowan tied the game 2-all. Atwood, a veteran who had the game-winning hit in the 2016 state championship game with Union County, lifted a sacrifice fly against closer Camron Wallace to plate Setzer with the go-ahead run. But Wallace stranded Gilmore at third, and Rowan settled for a precarious, 3-2 lead.
Wagner got a routine groundball to start the bottom of the seventh. Rowan was two outs away from a monumental victory, but that was as close as Post 342 came.
Shelby kept coming. Colby Ferguson walked. McNeely’s ringing double put runners at second and third. Wagner gloved a bouncer. He was able to hold both runners, but he couldn’t get an out, and Shelby had the bases packed.
Scism was next. His sharp single to right was the final swing of a memorable adventure.
“I felt really good about our chances before the rain,” Gantt said. “After the delay, Shelby looked like a different team.”
Rowan has played in 11 of the 20 single-site state tournaments, including the last four in a row. Keeping that run going this year and beating excellent Randolph and High Point teams to win the Area III title was a tribute to the leadership of the coaching staff and veterans Owen and Atwood.
“I know we played some ugly games this summer, but there still was a whole lot more good than bad,” Gantt said. “Our guys showed up every game.”
NOTES: Wallace, the winning pitcher, has played for the Greater Cabarrus Stallions … Atwood finished his three-year career with 94 RBIs, tying legend Johnny Yarbrough for a spot on Rowan’s all-time list. Lippard, who is eligible to return next summer, had 51 RBIs this season and has 83 for his career. Owen finished his career among the all-time leaders with 20 wins. … Rowan is 32-15 all-time since the single-site state tournament format was adopted in 2000. Rowan is 1-2 against Shelby. Rowan beat Shelby for the 2009 state championship and finished that year in the World Series in Fargo, N.D. … Gantt has been the head coach since 2001 and has amassed 534 Legion wins. … A full boxscore is in Tuesday’s edition, along with some final numbers for Rowan, a list of state champs and a list of Area III champs. … Shelby will be shooting for its eighth state title today. Shelby took crowns in 1942, 1945, 1951, 1957, 1958, 2001 and 2014.
Rowan 100 000 2 — 3 7 2
Shelby 001 010 2 — 4 6 1
W — Wallace. L — Wagner (2-1).
HR — Rowan: Setzer (7).
Leading hitters — Rowan: Setzer 2-for-3. Shelby: McNeely 2-for-2