New Era Correspondent
Dan Herr is a deeply religious man and, as coach of the Strasburg/Willow Street Cardinals, he has witnessed those beliefs and instilled them in his team.
And so, with the Cards clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, the bases loaded with Manheim Township White Sox and only one out, you couldn’t fault him if he had rung up the prayer hotline.
“Bases loaded, one out, we can win this thing,” Herr said to himself. “Or, we can lose this on one little hit. Whatever happens, happens.”
Prayers were answered when Sheldon Witmer got a force at home for the second out and then a strikeout to end the game and deliver the Midget-Midget title of the 54th New Era Tournament , with 6-5 over the Sox (21-8).
“I was tight,” Herr said. “My heart was pounding.”
“That was too intense! It was so much fun!” said third baseman Chris Pratt, who drove in the winning run in the top of the inning. “It was great. It was just God’s glory shining down on all of us.”
The Cards (21-11) led twice, 1-0 at the beginning and 6-5 at the end. There were three ties and Township led three times, 2-1, 4-2 and 5-4.
The White Sox stranded seven baserunners, wasted a pair of one-out triples, had two runners thrown out at home and one at third on a bunted fielder’s choice.
The Cardinals only left three, but had two runners picked off by pitcher Dane Yoder, another gunned at second by catcher George eager and also had one thrown out at home on a great throw from left by Alex Sota.
Sox coach Tom Sota wryly noted, “I think we gave the crowd their money’s worth.”
The Cardinals had twice defeated the Sox in the Penn Manor League regular season. The first time, in Lampeter, it was by two runs, for Township’s first loss of the year.
The second meeting, at Township, was an eerily prescient harbinger of the NET final. SWS carried a 3-run lead into the last inning and Witmer seemed in command. Before he knew it, Township had two runs in on a triple and the tying run was 60 feet away.
Witmer buckled down and got a strikeout for the final out.
This time, Township got the threat going right away. Witmer brushed the chest of Tim Rieker’s shirt, sending him down to first and, with one out, drilled John Dettinger on the hand.
Andy Dochterman beat out an infield single to first to load ’em up. That brought Jonathon Stutzman, who had singled and scored Township’s second run, to the plate.
Was Witmer nervous?
“Definitely,” he admitted, but he wanted to determine his own fate.
Stutzman knocked an 0-1 pitch right back at Witmer, who threw home to Joey Kachnoskie. Forgetting that he only had to tag the plate, Kachnoskie up-dumped pinch runner Eric Whitworth for the second out.
That brought up Eager, who had knocked in Township’s first run, as Township’s last hope.
“There’s nobody I’d rather have up there on our team than him,” Sota said.
“He’s a great player,” Witmer said. “I’m scared of him when he comes to the plate.”
Witmer threw a ball, then got a called strike. Balls two and three quickly followed and his next pitch might have been a little low, could’ve been a little outside.
“It was a strike all the way,” Witmer said.
The umpire saw it that way, too, which is all that matters, and now the count was full.
Witmer put the next pitch a little lower and a little farther outside.
Eager couldn’t take it. And he couldn’t hit it. Swing. Miss. Strike three. Ballgame. Title.
“He (Witmer) did a very good job of taking care of business,” Sota said.
Township reached him for eight hits and picked up three walks, but Eager was Witmer’s ninth strikeout victim of the night.
He always seemed to bull his neck when he needed to, reaching back for the big strikeout.
In the second, Dettinger followed Mike Beatty’s RBI hit with a triple to right center. Witmer fanned Dochterman and Stutzman on seven pitches. End of threat.
In the fourth, Yoder stroked a one-out triple into the geometric oddity that is the left field corner at Kunkle.
Watching the ball carom around, Hess thought, “Oh, man. Here we go!”
Witmer froze Alex Sota – who saw a bunt try go foul – and Matt Rieker on four-seam fastballs that cut the outside corner for called third strikes and the momentum had taken a sure shift toward the Cards.
Steve Diehl singled to open the top of the sixth and took second on a passed ball. Yoder worked Pratt to 2-2 and tried to zip a fastball home for strike three.
“Everybody was telling me, “Come on, Chris. You’ve got to get this hit for us…’ I just connected and it was gone,” Pratt said.
Gone into the reaches of right field as Diehl scampered home.
In their two-game title run, the Cards hit .436 as a team. Pratt was 4-for-6 with 3 RBIs. Diehl was 3-for-6 with 2 RBIs and 4 runs scored.
Witmer more than ably helped his cause, going 5-for-7 with 4 RBIs and 4 runs scored, but the biggest hitting – this game, this tournament – was done by Eric Herr.
Herr went 3-for-3 with 3 runs scored in each game and his bat work in the title game was like a knife in Township’s gut.
He singled and scored the first run of the game in the first, tripled to lead off the third, scoring on a error and beat out an infield single in the fifth, scoring on Witmer’s base hit.
Not bad work for a guy who, admittedly, was struggling.
“But since the New Era started, I’ve been hitting again,” he said.
He sure picked the right time.
“I never dreamed that he would do that,” his father said. “He had the best tournament he’s ever had. He just got into a groove. I could see it in his eyes.”
Dan Herr’s eyes shined at the end, too because, although he had been part of two other NET title-winning coaching staffs, this was his own.
“It’s the sweetest of all because I’m on the field as head coach.”
But really it was the kids’ title.
“It’s a team effort,” Herr said. “I hope they remember it for the rest of their lives.”
Pratt and Witmer both delivered in the clutch
By Jeffrey Reinhart
New Era Sports Writer
It was the biggest hit of Chris Pratt ‘s young life.
It was the best clutch pitching performance of Sheldon Witmer’s budding career.
And it was the Strasburg/Willow Street Cardinals’ most memorable win of a long, hot summer of baseball.
Pratt ‘s single gave SWS a 6-5 lead in the top of the sixth, and Witmer somehow squeezed out of the jam of all jams in the bottom half of that inning, as the Cardinals capped their season by eking past the Manheim Township White Sox in the New Era Midget-Midget championship game Tuesday night at Kunkle Field in Mount Joy.
Pratt gave the Cards the lead for good with no outs in the sixth, when he laced an RBI single to right to score Steve Diehl, who singled and stole second to start the inning.
“Had to be the biggest hit of my life,” said Pratt, who smoked Dane Yoder’s low fastball into right field. “I was thinking, “Oh gosh, what am I going to do if I strike out?’
“Just being up there and getting the hit to win the game was incredible.”
But Pratt ‘s clutch hit was only half the story.
How Witmer wiggled out of the mess he created in the bottom of the sixth is anybody’s guess.
First up was Tim Riecker.
Plunk. Witmer drilled Riecker in the ribs.
After fanning Mike Beatty with high gas to get the first out of the inning, up stepped John Dettinger, who earlier bombed an RBI triple to the 257-foot mark in dead center to give the Sox a 3-2 lead in the second.
Plunk. Witmer nailed Dettinger on the left hand.
“That last inning I had some butterflies,” Witmer said, “especially after I hit a couple of guys.”
Next up was Andy Dochterman, and Township’s gritty leadoff hitter chopped an infield single to second.
Bases loaded. One out. Tying run at third. Winning run on second.
Then Township’s Jonathan Stutzman strides to the plate, looking to play the role of hero. And he nearly was.
Stutzman hit a bouncer back to Witmer, who made a nice stab and fired to his catcher, Joey Kachnoskie, who in a cloud of dust forced Riecker for the second out.
Bases loaded. Two outs. Tying run at third. Winning run on second.
Witmer, who still had some gas in the tank, ran the count full to George Eager, but blew a high fastball by him for the third and final out.
Witmer is no Houdini, but the jam from which he escaped in the sixth was nothing short of magical.
“When the game is on the line and he has to get an out, he’s able to do it,” Township coach Tom Sota said of Witmer. “He has the ability to dig deep, which he did. Hey, a hit there or an out there, and it could’ve been a different story, so my hat’s off to him.”
SWS coach Dan Herr – whose son Eric went 3-for-3 and joined older brothers Matt and Mike as New Era Tournament champions – said his righty saved his best for last.
“It was a gutsy performance,” he said. “Sheldon is the kind of kid that is calm and collective out there. We tell all of our kids that composure goes a long way. Ability is one thing – and certainly you need ability – but to keep your head and keep your composure out there, that’s one asset that’s going to take Sheldon a long way.
“That’s a big plus because he keeps his head in there.”
So what was going through Witmer’s head when he was trying to get out of the sixth?
“All kinds of things,” said the winning pitcher. “Mostly winning and not wanting to lose. It was scary, especially when I had to pitch to Eager because I think he’s their best hitter. Whenever he comes up, you get scared.”
Witmer was a bit frazzled in the fifth, too. With one out and Township leading 5-4, Yoder laced a triple to left as the Sox looked for some insurance.
But Witmer bore down and struck out Alex Sota and Matt Riecker looking to get out of a pickle.
“That was pretty big,” said Witmer, who had nine strikeouts in all. “Whenever I have a guy on third I get nervous because there’s no way I want him to score.”
Painting the corners and keeping Sota and Riecker guessing, Witmer successfully stranded Yoder at third and kept his team in the game.
“That hurt us because both strikeouts were looking,” Tom Sota said. “I thought that was a big difference in the game because Sheldon likes to throw the ball on the corners, and I thought we were prepared for that.”
That left it up to Pratt to deliver the game-winner.
“Chris has a lot of confidence up there,” Herr said. “He had a couple of big hits against this team earlier this season, but this hit was certainly the biggest.”
“I’ve never had a hit like that to win a game,” Pratt said. “I’ve had some clutch hits before, but nothing like that. It was so intense.”
But nothing as intense as Witmer somehow finding a way to dodge one bullet after another and deliver a victory.
“Sheldon really came through for us,” Pratt said.
So did you, Chris. So did you.