BY DAVE BYRNE
Given that they had the best records in the Lanco School League this summer, and that they finished the regular season tied for the league lead, it should come as no surprise that Strasburg/Willow Street and Hempfield Black will meet in the championship game of the New Era Midget Tournament on Monday night.
But how they got there … as Ringo once sang, it don’t come easy!
Both SWS and Black (14-2) had to survive seventh-inning crucibles Friday night at Clipper Magazine Stadium, staving off, respectively, Garden Spot and Ephrata Pride, before they could turn their attention to each other and their date with destiny, Monday at 7 p.m. at the Clip.
In the opening game of Friday’s semifinal doubleheader, SWS’s Garrett Groshong struck out Ryan Smith with runners on second and third and two out and SWS (14-2) parried Garden Spot, 8-7.
In the nightcap, it was Andrew Corso coming on with runners at second and third and nobody out in the seventh inning, getting two ground ball outs and a popup to save Black’s 5-4 victory over the Pride.
“Andrew did a fantastic job, throwing strikes,” said coach Jeremy Morrison, who shared that Corso, nominally Black’s second baseman, had not pitched in several weeks and had few outings on the mound this year in total. “He got three unbelievable outs. He stayed ready and answered the bell tonight.”
SWS’s Bear Shank launched a 3-1 pitch from Spot’s Nick Lehman in the sixth inning of the opener, a high, towering drive that landed on the tarpaulin roof of the Clip’s picnic area.
“It felt really good off the bat,” said Shank, who took the briefest of moments to appreciate the ball’s parabola. “You don’t want to watch it too much,” he said, “just in case it hits the wall, or something.”
The solo shot gave SWS an 8-6 lead and seemed like icing on the cake. Someone left the cake out in the rain, however, as the Spartans (12-4) picked up where they’d left off an inning earlier when Groshong got the ball, and a 7-2 lead, in the sixth inning in relief of starter Brandon Nickel.
Before he could get his bearings the Spartans had mounted a four-run rally on Logan Eby’s sacrifice fly, Ryan Smith’s 2-run double and Nick Lehman’s RBI single.
But Groshong stranded a pair — a recurring, and unfortunate, theme for the Spartans —as Cameron Heilman was thrown out at home trying to score on a wild pitch.
Shank’s blast gave Groshong a two-run cushion. A cushion the Spartans quickly set to shredding in the seventh as Brock Kauffman’s walk sandwiched one-out singles from Zach Skinner and Logan Eby.
Anthony Torreulla, overdue at 0 for 3 with an RBI ground out, ripped a single to left scoring Skinner. Coming right behind Skinner, Kauffman was tagged out by catcher Devon Weiant, who took Ben Rhoades throw on the fly and swipe-tagged Kauffman — who did not slide.
“He (Kauffman) gave it to us right there,” said Groshong. “But, Rhoades did a good job of throwing it down.”
Groshong went 2-and-2 to Smith, then got him to wave at a curveball, sealing the victory. “I don’t know,” offered Groshong, whose line read: 2 innings, 7 hits and 5 runs — 3 earned. “I just pulled through.”
“Give credit to Garrett,” Shank said. “He came through for us.”
Garden Spot jumped on top with two first-inning runs as Torreulla plated Matt Brubaker, with Kauffman coming home on an error.
SWS evened the score in the bottom of the first on Austin Pletcher’s single and an error, then took the lead in the third on Pletcher’s single, a couple of errors and Andrew Hay’s fielder’s choice grounder.
Dan Eshleman’s sac fly in the fifth made it a 7-2 ballgame and the path to Monday seemed clear. Until it wasn’t.
“That’s the way it’s been all year for us,” said Spartans’ coach Bob McKinley. “We show up, we sleep a little bit and then we turn it back on.”
Black’s Chase Gilbert was nearly untouchable the first three innings of the nightcap, striking out six of the twelve batters that stepped in. By then he had a 2-0 lead on Jeremy Noel’s RBI hit and Pride pitcher Nate Fassnacht’s pickoff error.
Bases-loaded walks to Drew Scoggin and Mark Peterson in the fourth inning and Tim Gailor scoring on a wild pitch in the fifth gave Black a 5-1 lead going in to the sixth as Ephrata (9-6-1) got a run back in the fourth on Dillon Good’s RBI double. But the Pride had already stranded six base runners, on the way to a total of eleven left on base.
“LOB’s BBs (base on balls) early on,” Pride coach Jeff Oberholtzer lamented. “We failed to execute, but you can’t pinpoint one play. We had our chances. We came up a little short.”
Ephrata chased Gilbert with Adam Schwartz’s bases-loaded, two-run double and Fassnacht made it a one-run game, singling in Jory Hagen.
The Pride would come no closer however, leaving the bases loaded. With Evan Frees on third and Good on second, with his second double of the night, and nobody out in the Pride seventh, the time seemed ripe to squeeze buunt. More so when Corso, who came on in relief of Greg Gambler, went 1-0 to Hagen.
“We’d talked to our corner guys about the possibility of a squeeze,” Morrison said. “Maybe (their) strategy was to play for the base hit to go ahead. Who knows?
“There’s a lot of options in close games and you can second guess yourself until the end of time,” he continued. “We’ve all been there.”
With the infield up, Hagen grounded to Gailor at short. Schwartz popped out to Gailor near the bag at second for the second out and Patrick Gallagher grounded to Gailor for the game-ender.