ASHEBORO — Whenever Randolph County Post 45 and Rowan County Post 342 meet on the diamond, it’s something baseball fans relish because special things usually occur.
The latest battle between the Southeast Region powers came during the American Legion Area III semifinals, a best three-out-of-five series that went the distance, finishing Monday night.
In the fifth and deciding game, Rowan County recorded a 5-0 victory to earn a berth into the Area III finals against High Point and an invitation to the state championship series, which will begin next week at Campbell University.
Randolph County forced Game 5 with an 11-2 win Sunday. Post 45 trailed 2-1 entering the bottom of the sixth inning at McCrary Park before erupting for 10 runs, sending 14 batters to the plate.
“If we could start the game in the sixth inning, I think we’d be alright,” said Post 45 coach Ronnie Pugh, whose team scored 10 runs in the sixth inning of Game 2 to even the series at 1-1 at that point. “We hung in there.”
Starting pitcher Robert Garner improved to 4-0 in the summer with a complete-game win. He allowed six hits, with five of those coming in the first three innings. He walked two and fanned four.
“Robert gave up a couple of early runs and then settled down and gave us a chance to win,” Pugh said. “That’s the key. You have to put yourself in a position to win. We got a couple of big knocks in the sixth inning.”
That they did as a grand slam from Tanner Marsh was followed by a homer from Hunter Atkins, his third homer of the series. Carter Brown added a key two-run double earlier in the inning and Tyler Parks executed a perfect sacrifice bunt that led to a throwing error, keying the big rally.
Post 45 trailed 2-1 at the time with runners on first and second and no one out. Parks’ bunt, which came on a full-count pitch, was thrown away by the Rowan pitcher, allowing Post 45 to tie the game.
“It’s one of those things that’s just a gut feeling,” Pugh said of bunting Parks, his cleanup hitter who said he can’t remember the last time he was even asked to bunt. “I felt we had to get something going. He’s just a competitor. You expect him to do the job.”
Rowan County helped the Post 45 cause by walking five batters that inning, including Connor Adams with the bases loaded, which broke the 2-2 tie.
Rowan scored a run in the second and one in the third for a 2-0 lead before Post 45’s Grat Dalton was hit by a pitch and worked his way around to score on a single by Braylen Hayes in the third.
“There have been some pretty good baseball games to watch,” Pugh said. “If you just look at the score, you might think it's not hitting on a lot. But the scores haven't been indicative of the defensive plays that have been made, the pitching by both teams.”
Rowan won the opener 8-2, Post 45 Game 2 11-0, Rowan Game 3 10-0 and Post 45 Game 4 11-2. The home team won each game.
Randolph County’s Drake Purvis fired a six-inning no-hitter in Game 2 that ended after Post 45 scored 10 times, including a game-ending grand slam by Atkins. Atkins had two home runs in the inning. The game was scoreless until the bottom of the fifth when Brown hit his first homer of the year, a solo shot.
Post 45 managed just two hits in the Game 3 loss.
Of course, the long tradition between the two Legion programs is one of the top rivalries in the state.
“It’s just the quality of the kids, they compete,” Pugh said. “There’s not a lot of back and forth. It’s quality kids out there who play the game the right way. It’s fun to play them and it always has been.”
Baseball fans aren’t complaining.