New Era Correspondent
Solanco Gray head coach Hobert McMillion is a firm believer that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Which explains why he sent his ace, and nominal championship game starting pitcher, Nate Blough, back out for the eighth inning to nail down Gray’s 4-3 win over the Lititz Oddfellows.
Never mind that that inning was his third inning of work Monday night, making him ineligible to pitch tonight.
“You have to win the next game to get to the big show,” McMillion said.
Which is true. And Gray (22-2) will be center stage tonight at Ephrata’s War Memorial Field, opposite Hempfield Black (22-3) in the Midget Division championship game of the New Era Tournament.
Hempfield walked to a mercy-rule victory over Penn Manor Comet Blue, 14-0, in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader, Monday in Ephrata.
Solanco will not only be without its No. 1 starter, but also its No. 2, Josh Hershberger, who went five innings Monday night.
Both are, by rule, prohibited from taking the mound tonight. (If by chance tonight’s game were to be postponed, Blough could pitch tomorrow.)
Otherwise, No. 3 man Mitch Nesbitt gets the call.
On the other hand, Hempfield will give the ball to ace starter Ryan Walters, who won on Friday, and is eligible to pitch nine innings tonight.
Pitching dominated the first game as Hershberger and Blough teamed for Solanco while Zach Snyder went the distance for Lititz (13-8).
Hershberger’s side-arm delivery tormented Lititz in the early going, although it may have been a case of a little too much knowledge being a dangerous thing.
“Hershberger had a very obvious delivery,” Oddfellows’ coach Frank Camera shared. “He throws from the side, but when he’s flat from the side it’s a fastball.
“His off-speed stuff, he really does drop down low. We went up there so much looking at the motion, that we were a little off balance.”
Hershberger allowed five hits through four innings, but was picked up by his defense with a second-inning double play.
Jordan McMillion’s great diving catch in center in the third was big as was the Nic Lewis-to-Chris Grimsey-to-Wes Foley relay in the fourth that nailed Tyler Kline trying to score on Teal Stutzman’s single to left.
Hershberger was particularly be-deviling for Jason Griffith, who accounted for three of Hershberger’s six strikeouts.
“Coming into the game Jason’s batting .409 with only four strikeouts on the season,” lamented Camera.
“That’s why I went with Hersh,” said Hobie McMillion. “I figured that they can hit fastballs, but Hersh he’s got a lot of junk and stuff.”
And yet, it seemed like Lititz was finally solving Hershberger in the fifth inning.
And not a moment too soon — Solanco had a 3-0 lead thanks to an unearned run in the third and a two-run homer by McMillion in the fifth.
But Lititz opened the bottom of the fifth with hits by Andy Thompson and Martin Sommers. An errant throw by Solanco catcher Wes Foley, who was trying to gun down Sommers at second but threw the ball into center instead, allowed Thompson to score the Oddfellows’ first run.
Zach Snyder’s one-out single put runners on the corners, and Sommers scored when Blough bobbled Jordan Weaver’s grounder at short.
Kline followed with an RBI single to center to tie the score.
Hershberger battled out of the inning, but when he walked Stutzman to lead off the sixth, Hobie McMillion called on Blough to restore order.
Meanwhile, Gray was slogging along as Snyder sailed through the sixth and seventh innings.
Jordan McMillion walked leading off the eighth and with one out, T.J. Wolle bounced an infield single off Kline’s glove at short.
The ball trickled into centerfield as McMillion alertly chugged into third base. Hershberger then hit the first pitch he saw into center for an RBI double.
“We knew they were coming up with the heart of their lineup,” Camera said. “We knew if we got through there, we could make some things happen.”
Instead Solanco made it happen.
While timely hitting lifted Solanco, it was Hempfield’s patience at the plate that made the difference in the second game.
Black batters walked nine times Monday night. Six of those walks came in the first inning, courtesy of Comet Blue starter Zach Martin, as Black grabbed a 7-0 lead.
“Our guys are very, very patient at the plate,” said Black assistant Jack Merrifield. “In a game like this, you’re going to get caught up and swing at anything that’s coming in there. It’s human nature to get up there and swing the bat. We’re not doing that. We emphasize that every game — first strike.
“Make sure you take one that you want. If it’s not there, leave it go. If it’s spinning the wrong way, leave it go.”
Hempfield’s third inning left the Comets (10-11) spinning as Black collected four of its six hits, plus two more walks, a couple errors and catcher Joel Gatti being hit by a pitch two times in the inning.
When the dust had settled, Black was up 13-0.
“Obviously, they helped us a lot, but what the heck,” Merrifield said.
“We’ll take advantage of anything they give, that’s baseball.”
Meanwhile, Hempfield starter Ryan Hungarter was giving the Comets very little.
Tony Oktela’s one-out single in the first was Blue’s only hit. Hungarter walked four, but stranded seven runners, always getting the key out when he needed it.
And so tonight will be the fourth meeting of the season between Black and Gray.
Solanco won big the first time, in the Manheim Tournament. Hempfield took the next two, in the championship series of the Lanco League tournament, with Walters throwing a shutout in the title-clincher.
He’ll try to repeat that feat tonight.