NC3 baseball: Hales leads Rowan in opener
By Mike London
LEXINGTON — The 25 fans allowed inside historic Holt-Moffitt Field came close to witnessing Rowan County’s Cole Hales hitting for the cycle.
Hales homered, tripled and singled during his first four at-bats and got a fifth at-bat with Rowan leading by three runs in the top of the ninth. That’s when Hales struck out.
“Definitely wanted to get the double in that last at-bat,” Hales said. “I couldn’t help but have the cycle in my head because my teammates kept letting me know that all I needed was the double. I kind of went up there swinging away, but I didn’t get much to hit.”
Prior to that, Hales got plenty of pitches to hit.
His tiebreaking, two-run triple in the seventh was the key blow of the game, as Rowan roared from behind with a five-run seventh to take an 8-3 victory over the Davidson County Warriors in the NC3 baseball debut for both programs — programs that met in the second round of the Area III playoffs last year as the Post 8 WarHawgs and Rowan County American Legion. Post 8 won that series.
Davidson County actually was in control for the first six innings, but there’s not nearly as much pressure on hitters in the seventh inning now. NC3 baseball games are scheduled for nine innings. Playing nine means longer nights, but it also means there’s a much greater chance for unexpected things like cycles.
Hales’ freshman season at Coker University in Hartsville, S.C., consisted of two at-bats in the Cobras’ 23 games. He struck out in both of those.
But he continued to work off the field and has added a lot of weight and muscle since last summer. The Carson graduate had a tremendous 2019 as Rowan County Pitcher of the Year during the high school season and as a .382 hitter in the summer for Rowan County American Legion. Now Hales is counted on to be one of the leaders, on the mound and at the plate, for Rowan’s entry in NC3 ball.
“I didn’t really get to play much in college this year, but I saw some good velocity in practice and lifted twice a day most days,” said Hales, who now weighs 185 pounds. “I feel a lot stronger.”
Hales accounted for what will go down in history as Rowan’s first NC3 run when he hit a towering homer to left in the first inning against Davidson starter Dylan Ward.
“He threw me a fastball up, right where I wanted it,” Hales said.
Hales didn’t miss it. Rowan had the lead.
But then it looked like Davidson might get 10 runs in the bottom of the first.
Rowan starter Ryan Street, a Carson grad and Catawba signee, was in trouble right away. The bases were loaded with no outs after a walk, a fisted single and an attempted sacrifice bunt that transformed into an infield hit when Rowan infielders couldn’t make a play.
“We’ve practiced all the bunt coverages, but it’s still different when you get in a game,” Rowan head coach Jim Gantt said.
When Davidson catcher Kaden Swaim rifled a ringing double to the gap, Davidson had two runs in and two more runners in scoring position.
But that’s where Street rallied — strikeout, strikeout, groundout — and Rowan escaped that mess, only down 2-1.
“Street kept his composure,” Gantt said. “He settled down and limited the damage.”
Losing pitcher Tanner Tesh, who began the game as the designated hitter, produced a two-out, run-scoring single in the second to bump Davidson’s lead to 3-1, but that would be it for Davidson’s offense. A parade of Rowan relievers — Bryson Wagner, Logan Rogers, winner Jonathan Spry, Scout Nichols and, finally, Wayne Mize — shut down Davidson, with the help of one diving catch and two double plays.
“Wagner looked great,” Gantt said. “You can tell he’s a year older. He was throwing hard.”
With two big strikeouts, Spry wiggled out of a two-on, no-outs jam in the sixth to keep Rowan in the game. Then he was the beneficiary of that Rowan offensive explosion in the seventh that came out of nowhere. Ward had pitched four strong innings for Davidson. Tesh had held the lead for the home team in the fifth and sixth.
Rowan’s decisive seventh began innocently with an infield hit by Dylan Driver, who reached base in his last 11 plate appearances of the season with Carson. Casey Gouge’s hard-hit grounder banged off the first baseman’s glove and was ruled an error.
Then Mattox Henderson’s at-bat turned the game around. Henderson was batting eighth and was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts, so everyone expected him to sacrifice, but he took a couple of balls and got into a favorable count where he could be aggressive. Henderson singled through the right side to slice Rowan’s deficit to 3-2. Zeb Burns, who got three infield hits for Rowan, got on with a bunt to fill the bases. Charlie Klingler finally made the first out of the inning, but it was a sacrifice fly that evened the game at 3-all and brought Hales to the plate.
“You have to play the game,” Gantt said. “He did go up there looking to bunt, but that was his decision. Then he had the count in his favor and decided to swing. You want to give kids the chance to make decisions in a baseball game and in life.”
Next, Hales delivered his two-run triple. Mize followed with a hot smash for a single. Rowan, which had been trudging uphill all night, suddenly led 6-3.
“We’ve been practicing for two weeks, but it’s still been a long time since these guys played in a competitive situation,” Gantt said. “Early on, everyone was apprehensive, probably trying too hard. But then they settled in, and everything was fine. Their spirits were high, and it was great to be back on the field. People miss baseball. People need baseball.”
Nichols, who got the last out of the seventh, kept the lead in the eighth.
Driver’s two-run triple in the ninth followed solid rips by Mize and Jordan Goodine and made it 8-3.
Mize, a surprise choice to close, came in flinging fastballs in the ninth. He walked a batter, but Rowan turned a double play to end the game.
Hales started that double play at third base.
“He had a homer and a triple, but the play he made on that double play was the best thing he did all night,” Gantt said. “That was outstanding. Your first instinct is you want him to make sure of one out, but he was looking to get two. You can’t make a great play unless you’re willing to try to make one, and he did it.”
There were a lot of people following the action from outside the gates.
“We played a good game,” Hales said. “It was just an awesome feeling to get back out there and play some baseball. When you looked out there beyond the outfield wall, there were a whole lot fans. They stayed for the whole game and supported us. I’d say the support was outstanding.”
NOTES: This was designated as a non-league game. The teams are also scheduled to play at Newman Park on Tuesday in another non-league affair that will be limited to 25 fans. Rowan is scheduled to start league play against Randolph County on July 4. … Rowan got 14 hits, with Mize joining Burns and Hales with three. Mize got the green light on 3-and-0 in the sixth with a man on base and Rowan trailing by two runs and lifted a flyball to center. “That pitch was high and it’s a pitch he’ll take for ball four 10 days from now,” Gantt said. “But he was looking for something up. He got it, and he went after it.” … There were a lot of fans outside the walls. A bucket was passed for donations. Gantt said there were about as many people outside as their normally are inside the park at Holt-Moffitt Field… Davidson lead-off man Levin Perrell stole two bases and scored on Swaim’s double and Tesh’s single. … Former Catawba outfielder Keaton Hawks is piloting the Davidson squad. .. Davidson third baseman Drew Rabon went 2-for-2 before he came out of the game. Davidson made a lot of substitutions in the fifth.
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