Lititz exits; Elizabethtown, SWS advance

Matt Cover pitches for Lititz VFW.

By Dave Byrne
Sports Staff

As the top two seeds in the Junior-Midget division of the New Era Baseball Tournament, it would be logical to see the Strasburg/Willow Street White Sox and Lititz VFW face each other.

But in a knockout game?

In an NET turned upside down, elimination was the fate they faced — a fate that befell VFW in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday at Mount Joy’s Kunkle Field.

The Sox (27-6), seeded No. 1 entering the tournament, stayed alive in the playback bracket, dismissing second-seeded VFW by a 4-0 score.

Earlier, in the first game, Elizabethtown Navy pushed Lititz to the edge with a 5-3 victory.

“SWS and Lititz are the two teams to beat, every year,” E-town’s Nick Stoner said.

“To know that one of them is [going to be] knocked out and we’re one win away from the championship is a good feeling.”

E-town (16-6) will meet the Penn Manor Comets (14-7) this afternoon at Kunkle in a winners bracket semifinal set for 2 p.m.

The loser of that game faces the White Sox at 5 p.m. in a win-or-go-home circumstance.

In the rock-paper-scissors world of baseball, leather covered lumber in E-town’s victory.

VFW lit up its side of Kunkle’s scoreboard on Chase Gilbert’s solo home run over left field and a two-run blast by pinch hitter Cole Cassel that exited the field in right center.

But E-town already led 3-0 when Gilbert unloaded, and 5-1 before Cassel’s launch.

E-town loaded the bases in the third as Justin Shelly reached on a strikeout-wild pitch, Joey Lonardi walked and Jeremy Sabathne singled.

Shelly scored on a wild pitch and Lonardi scored on Santino Buonamici’s RBI grounder to short, which was booted for an error.

Nick Stoner’s sac fly to left plated Sabathne with the third run.

Buonamici, who started and got the victory, picked himself up with a pair of pickoffs: Luke Mariano off first in the first inning and Matt Cover at second in the third inning — one out ahead of Gilbert’s homer.

Not content to rest on its lead, E-town added a fifth-inning run on Shelly’s RBI single to take a 4-1 advantage.

“Just scoring one more run, putting more distance between you, it does something mentally to a defense,” Lititz coach Eric Martin said.

With Cole Epler on in relief of Buonamici, E-town diffused a dangerous situation in the fifth inning with a major intervention of leather.

VFW’s Jeremy Armstrong walked and Cover singled him to third.

After Mariano flied to center, Navy coach Greg Stoner elected to intentionally walk Gilbert.

Tim Griest appeared to have thwarted that maneuver, scalding Epler’s first pitch.

Right into Epler’s glove. “I really just saw it and reacted,” Epler said. “I didn’t really have time to do anything else.”

Epler then threw to third, easily doubling off courtesy runner Patrick Mullen to end the threat.

“My first reaction was to look home,” he said. “I saw [Mullen] down the third-base line, so I threw it to third base.”

Truth be told, Epler could’ve thrown to any base for the same result.

All three runners were beyond the point of no return.

As one Lititz assistant dryly observed, “They could’ve got six outs on that play.”

Stoner splattered a single off the fence in center in the sixth, scoring Buonamici, who had walked to close out the scoring, then pitched a scoreless seventh to record the save.

Backs to the wall, VFW could not solve SWS’s Colin Eckman in the nightcap.

Eckman pitched five innings of two-hit baseball — both hits off the bat of Justin Smith — and was never in trouble.

“I would say that was the best he’s thrown this year,” Sox coach Steve Shank said.

“My curveball and splitter were really working,” Eckman said. “I haven’t seen them work that well in a while.”

“Everyone knows we are an aggressive hitting team,” Martin said. “We get after fastballs.”

“He was pitching [us] backward today. I would say 70 percent was off-speed, and he would back it up with his fastball.”

While Eckman was taking care of the pitching portion of Shank’s victory formula, his teammates were handling the timely hitting element.

Bear Shank worked a one-out walk off VFW starter Chase Gilbert in the third inning and Ben Rhoades ripped a 1-0 fastball over the fence in left center.

“I saw fastball,” Rhoades said. “I knew it was coming. It was in my wheelhouse, and I wanted to kill it.”

That he did, but while those were the only runs Eckman would need, the fatal blow came two innings later.

Shank — who went the final two innings for the save — walked again with one out. Gilbert got Rhoades on strikes and went 0-2 to Devon Weiant.

Weiant pulled the next pitch well over the batting cage in right, doubling the Sox advantage.

“That was a little dagger,” Martin said. “We can get two runs. But now we’re four down.”

And now the tournament is down to three teams. Soon to be two.

Elizabethtown Navy starting pitcher Santino Buonamici delivers.

Lititz VFW’s Chase Gilbert drives a solo home run to left field.

Elizabethtown Navy reliever Nick Stoner closes the game against Lititz.

Lititz VFW’s Tim Griest takes a swing against Elizabethtown.

Elizabethtown Navy’s Casey Cooper connects against Lititz.