New Era Correspondent
Finally! After seven blowouts, the New Era Tournament got a little competitive.
Junior-Midget action returned to Mount Joy’s Kunkle Field Monday night with a pair of thrilling quarterfinal games.
In the opener, Aaron Nelson slugged a game-winning home run with one out in the bottom of the seventh to lift Rheems Gray to a 3-2 win over the Strasburg/Willow Street Red Sox.
The nightcap was equally gripping. The Conestoga Valley Braves hung on to defeat the Manheim Cardinals 3-2 in a game that wasn’t decided until catcher Justin Buckwalter tagged Joey Henderson between third and home for the final out of the game.
Last night’s survivors advance to next Monday’s J-M semifinals, back at Kunkle Field, and will face each other at 6:15 p.m. in the first game of a doubleheader.
It will be the second trip to the New Era semis in three years for four Rheems players – Trevor Rodriguez, Tyler Hostetter, Ryne Christian and Neil Moyer. They were members of the Rheems Gray Midget-Midget team that was eliminated by eventual champion Mountville in 1997.
Their return to the semis was very much in doubt as Red Sox righthander Carlos Diaz, a freshman-to-be at McCaskey East High School, kept Rheems (15-7) off stride with a bender that defied the laws of physics and a fastball that trailed sparks.
“I never thought we weren’t going to win it,” said Gray coach Dave Ritchey. “I thought the team had the ability to focus. In the last six games they’ve played, they just really started to play together.”
Diaz walked one and struck out 11 for the Red Sox, but Rheems forced him into an uphill battle all the way.
Gray took a short-lived 1-0 lead on its first hit of the game. With two out in the fourth, Christian connected for an opposite-field homer.
The Sox (18-6-1) answered in the fifth when Mike Savitsky singled and later scored the tying run on Andrew Frank’s groundout.
Gray grabbed the lead right back in the bottom of the fifth when Rodriguez singled in Nelson (2-for-3), who had led off the inning with a base hit.
Christian, who nearly matched Diaz pitch-for-pitch, retired Savitsky on a liner to first to dance out of trouble in the sixth, but was quickly back in dutch in the seventh.
Geoff Stone beat out an infield single and was sacrificed to second. Christian got Frank on a fly to right which brought Diaz to the plate.
Diaz had already doubled and, with a base open, shouldn’t have even sniffed anything to hit.
“No way I pitch to him,” Sox coach Don Frank stated. “I’d have walked him and went to the next guy.”
“Quite honestly, I really didn’t want to (pitch to him),” Ritchey said. “I told (Ryne) don’t give him anything good.”
Christian wasn’t quite careful enough. Diaz smacked a chopper over third and into leftfield for an RBI double that tied the game at 2-2.
“Unfortunately, (Ryne) hung a curveball,” Ritchey allowed, “but give (credit) to Carlos, he kept his hands back and drove the baseball.”
Jose Negron then hit the first pitch to short and through Eric Stauffer for an error. But as Diaz chugged around third and toward home, Hostetter fired a perfect throw to catcher Seth Brinser and Diaz was out at the plate.
Ryan Kiscaden lined to Diaz for the first out of the home seventh. That set the stage for Nelson’s heroics.
The Junior-Midget rookie missed Diaz’s first offering, then took two balls. Looking for a fastball on 2-and-1, he got one that covered a little too much of the plate and sent it into the night, sending the Red Sox home.
“We could’ve won it just as easily,” said Frank. “A play here or there, a hit here or there, a break here or there.”
On Monday, as it has been for several weeks now, the baseball gods were sitting in Rheems’ dugout.
“It’s been a miracle season,” Nelson said. “The (Susquehanna) League championship, and now this.”
It may not be a miracle season for the Conestoga Valley Braves just yet. But, as one of their fans noted, they’re certainly living right.
The Braves (15-5-2) pushed out to an early 3-0 lead in the nightcap, as Jeremy Stoltzfus drove in all three runs. Mark Cisney, who walked twice, scored two of the runs and Buckwalter tallied the third after a nice hit-and-run single.
Stoltzfus’ third-inning RBI single would be the CV’s last hit off of Manheim’s Brandon Shank, who retired the last 11 Braves in a row.
Shank needed to keep his team close because Stoltzfus retired the first 10 Cardinals of the game before Manheim nicked him for an unearned run in the fourth.
A two-base error put Shank on, he went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sac-fly to left by Jason Sibis.
Though the Braves made three errors, Stoltzfus’ middle infielders, Cisney at second and shortstop Kyle Swartz, were flawless behind him, helping to keep CV on top.
Manheim (13-6) crept within a run in the sixth when Dallas Huber walked, stole second and third and came home on an overthrow at third by Buckwalter.
Stoltzfus’ sixth-inning adventure had just about – in the words of one pitching coach – emptied his tent.
“I was tired,” admitted Stoltzfus, who had every right to be after throwing a total of 120 pitches.
In the seventh, the Cards did everything but win the game.
“We almost pulled it through,” said manager Dave Romboski. “If we didn’t have a little bit of confusion there…”
Josh Funk, pinch hitting for Joey Henderson, led off the seventh with a walk. Stoltzfus then got his 12th and 13th strikeouts.
Chris Shelly then singled Funk to second and Romboski re-entered Henderson to run at second. Meanwhile Braves’ coach Bob Buckwalter came out to offer an encouraging word to his weary workhorse.
“(Jeremy) carried us, on his back,” Bob Buckwalter said. “When I went out to the mound I told him, “This is the guy you want.”‘
Stoltzfus quickly buried Huber 0-and-2 and struck him out on the next pitch – a wild pitch.
Justin Buckwalter pounced on it and threw it to first… past Kris Miller covering. And the race was on.
Henderson pulled into third as Cisney, alertly backing up the play, ran the ball into the infield.
Meanwhile, Shelly had strayed way beyond second, well towards third. Where Henderson stood.
Cisney ran at Shelly, then threw to Buckwalter as Henderson started for home. Buckwalter applied the tag and his father heaved a sigh of relief.
“Nothing’s easy,” he said. “Now it’s going to get tough. Real tough.”