American Legion baseball: Veteran Lucas Graham a key for Rowan

Published 3:23 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2024

By Mike London

MOORESVILLE — Tuesday afternoon finds Rowan County American Legion infielder Lucas Graham hard at work at his father’s business — Josh’s Farmer’s Market in Mooresville.

Is his little brother, Eli, who often plays right field for Rowan County, working at the store also?

“Eli working? Heck no,” said Lucas, sounding like a typical older brother.

A lady inquires about the halibut, and for an infielder, Lucas is knowledgeable about seafood. “Tasty and flaky, ma’am,” Graham says politely, and rings up another sale.

Once he’s done with college and baseball, this will be Lucas’ business to take over, so the personable young man takes his work seriously, tries to make every shopper a repeat customer.

But while he peddles fish, fruit, vegetables and milk at a thriving business that began 30 years ago on a Mooresville roadside, Graham’s mind isn’t on what’s for dinner. His mind is on baseball.

That’s not to say that baseball is the only thing that ever enters his mind, but it’s the first thing on his mind every day. He likes to fish and hunt, among other things, but most mornings he wakes up thinking about slapping sliders on the outside corner to the opposite field.

Some players dread hot summer practices. Not Graham. He can’t wait for 5:15 p.m. when another Rowan Legion practice will get under way at Newman Park, presided over by head coach Jim Gantt, Adam Patterson and Graham’s uncle, Seth Graham.

Seth is West Rowan High’s head coach. The Grahams are baseball people.

The Grahams also are friendly people, but there’s starch in their backbones and vinegar in their veins. Legend has it that when Lucas’ great-grandfather was helping Whitey Meadows coach Mooresville Legion Post 66, he got into it with an umpire. A Rowan County fan cursed at him from the bleachers, at least he did until Lucas’ great-grandmother, who was seated right behind him, put her foot on his neck and told him to shut his mouth — or else.

Lucas’ father, Josh, played for South Iredell High and for Post 66 and he used to coach Post 66, so Lucas and Eli, have grown up well-schooled in how to play the game. Eli can bunt like a kid who grew up in the 1950s.

Lucas isn’t overly blessed with speed or power, two things that are at the top of every scout’s list, but he’s been successful in sports because he’s gotten really good at the things he can do and he understands what he can’t do. Being a left-handed hitter is an advantage that he knows how to use, he puts the ball in play, he rarely strikes out, he understands situational hitting, and he never goes to the plate trying to do too much.

“Our coaches do a great job every day of reminding me that I’m not very fast,” Lucas said with a laugh. “They tell me my little brother can run circles around me.”

An injury — Salisbury High superstar Jalon Walker broke Graham’s collarbone making a sack — shortened Lucas’ high school football career, but in his one year as the varsity starting quarterback for West Rowan, Graham threw for 2,426 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for six more TDs. Not too shabby for an average-sized guy without wheels.

In baseball, he was a member of all-conference and all-county teams. As a senior, he batted .506.

Lucas showed back in the spring he could continue to get singles, walks and the occasional double at the next level, standing out for a 38-10 Surry Community College team. He batted .323 and had an on-base percentage of .428. He made the All-Region 10 defensive team at second base.

He’s happy at Surry and plans to return there in the fall along with West Rowan grads and Surry teammates Elijah Palmer, Nate Greene and Zach McNeely.

Legion ball has always meant the world to all the Grahams, and Lucas has excelled at it. Rowan County play-by-play man Ken Anderson calls him “The Hit Man,” with some justification. Lucas had 58 hits last summer and batted .406.

He’s been in more of an RBI role than a table-setting role this summer, usually serving as Rowan’s cleanup hitter. He leads the team with 24 RBIs. He probably gets as many sac flies as anyone ever has.

“Whenever I get to the plate with that scenario, runner at third, less than two outs, I could care less about getting a base hit,” Graham said. “It’s all about getting the runner home in that situation, so I’m looking for a pitch that I can get to the outfield with some air under it.”

Rowan was shorthanded when the season started and was 1-5 when it added players from East Rowan state champions, including center fielder Nate Hayworth, shortstop Logan Dyer and catcher Joe Burleyson, who are fixtures in the starting lineup.

Another important addition was Matthew Connolly, a slugging catcher/first baseman, who graduated from West Rowan in 2023 and blossomed into a star as a freshman at Surry Community College.

“When the coaches told me Matt had decided to come play Legion ball, well, it’s not like I was going to try to talk him out of it,” Lucas said. “He’s definitely helped us, but the biggest thing that has made us better is just building chemistry. It was a matter of time before we started playing better. Now I think we’ve been getting better every game.”

Lucas has played mostly second base for Rowan County, but he also had played some at third base and first base.

“I don’t really care what position I play because I like them all,” he said. “Just as long as I’m in the lineup somewhere.”

Rowan won a critical road game on Friday at Kannapolis to clinch a playoff berth, rolled at Mocksville to win the division on Saturday, and demolished Concord on Sunday to close the regular season with a 15-10 record and 13 wins in its last 16 games.

Rowan won the division with pitcher Alex Hagler (appendectomy) and utility man Krys Hernandez (ankle) sidelined. It’s also uncertain how much Dyer will pitch going forward, but he still could help some on the mound.

Next for Rowan County is a best-of-five playoff series against Northern Division runner-up Davidson County that will begin on Wednesday at Newman Park. Mocksville will play Northern Division champ High Point.

Davidson County beat Randolph County for the third time on Monday, taking a 4-2 win behind pitcher Sam Beck to clinch second place in the North.

Davidson County (17-11) shut Rowan County down in two early games this season, but Rowan won a third meeting of the teams after Rowan had added reinforcements.

“Davidson has a good team,” Lucas said. “But we’ve seen them three times now. We know what we have to do to beat them.”