By Dave Byrne
New Era Correspondent
It’s a rivalry born in the finals of New Era Tournaments past and a friendship built in all-star competition.
The friendly competition between Safe Harbor and Manheim will be renewed in the tourney’s junior-midget championship game next Tuesday at Mount Joy’s Kunkle Field.
Dan Velcheck’s walk-off home run finished what he’d started an inning earlier as Safe Harbor (25-8) rallied past Lancaster Red 8-6 in the first game of Wednesday’s J-M semifinal doubleheader at Kunkle.
In the second game, a grand slam homer by Jarod Karns provided the cushion for teammate Nate Mast, who was practically unhittable as Manheim VFW (32-3) defeated Mount Joy Blue 8-2.
Neither result was entirely unexpected. Safe Harbor’s win was its fifth in six games against Red (20-10) this year. Manheim’s was the eighth in nine games against Blue (23-11).
And yet both games were entertaining. Lancaster was four outs away from a history-making victory. It would’ve been the first NET finalist from the City/Lancaster Township in 12 years.
Velcheck crushed those hopes, igniting a 4-run sixth inning with a ground-rule double. He capped the night with his 2-run homer in the seventh.
Mast was masterful in the nightcap, giving Mount Joy the blues with 17 strikeouts. He struck out every batter in the Mount Joy lineup at least once and struck out the side in the fourth, fifth and seventh innings.
“I usually don’t throw this good,” said Mast. “My fastball was just going. I had the curve that was just dropping in there. Everything was just going.”
His fastball ran the gamut from untouchable to unseeable.
“He had a full count on one batter,” recalled Manheim manager Bill Karns. “He brought it, and I heard the ball go, “Ssss.’ He must’ve had something on it.”
“He had it tonight,” Mount Joy manager Brad Schmitt agreed. “(Our) guys were baffled.”
Mast carried a one-hit shutout into the sixth inning, where Ryan Beamenderfer singled. Losing pitcher Darin Gorski spoiled the shutout, following with a 2-run homer off Mast, who walked five batters.
Manheim broke on top in the third on Dan Witmer’s RBI single and added to that in the fourth on Karns’ run-scoring single and a 2-run dinger by Tom Kenneff.
Matt Rowley opened the Manheim sixth with a hit, and Brad Worley reached on an infield error. He stayed alive on an error on Mast’s fielder’s choice, and Karns (3-for-5, 5 RBI, 3 runs scored) chased everybody home, knocking an outside pitch over the fence in right.
“We didn’t get many hits,” said Karns. “But the ones we did (get) were timely.”
Velcheck’s round-tripper was timely to the max. For pure drama, it was hard to beat.
“It’s been like that all season,” said winning pitcher Ben Rowe. “I’d say half our wins have come from the last inning or two.”
Handcuffed for most of the evening by Red’s D.J. Shoffstall, Harbor was held hitless through three innings.
In the fourth, Curran Blevins found a way to beat the Red shift — to defense Blevins, a lefthanded hitter, Red shortstop Ariel Martinez moved to the first-base side of second and second baseman Brandon Heiserman stationed himself dead center, between first and second.
Blevins circumvented that by sending a laser out over the fence in right center, breaking the no-hitter. Harbor’s second hit of the game also qualified for frequent flyer miles as Dan Reist launched a solo blast in the fifth.
That still left Harbor staring at a 6-2 deficit.
Red had painstakingly built its advantage with its running game and clever opportunism. After reaching on a forceout in the second inning, Martinez stole second and third and came home on a throwing error by pitcher Ben Rowe.
Holden Brubaker scored on Justin Moore’s RBI hit in the third. On the play, Moore took third on a two-base error by centerfielder Mike Thomas and scored on a wild pitch, giving Red a 3-0 lead.
Shoffstall singled to open the fourth inning and stole over to third. Harrison Anderson walked, giving Red a first-and-third situation. When Anderson took off for second base, Velcheck, Harbor’s catcher, threw down to third, hoping to catch Shoffstall straying off the bag.
Shoffstall took off for home, thirdbaseman Zac Martin threw back to Velcheck and Velcheck tagged him on the way by. Or did he?
It was ruled he had not, Shoffstall scored and Anderson took third. He then scored on Nate Lozano’s single to left.
Blevins’ homer made it a 5-1 game, but Lancaster got that back in its half of the fifth inning. Brubaker tripled into the rightfield corner to lead off and scored one out later on Luis Lopez’s single.
Shoffstall then scalded a ball to Keith Rutt at short. Rutt snared it and threw back to first, doubling off Lopez to end the inning. That psyched up Rowe, who got tough, allowing just a single to Heiserman the rest of the way.
Harbor then got back into the game, all the way back.
“Even though we were down like we were, the kids were positive,” Harbor manager Mark Blevins noted. “But it was getting a little bit close there.”
With one out in the Harbor sixth, Velcheck hit a line drive to center, right at Brubaker. Brubaker broke in, realized his mistake and reversed course, but the ball landed behind him and bounced over the fence for a groundrule double.
Rutt followed with a shot through Martinez’s legs at short and past Moore in left field, allowing Velcheck to score and Rutt to pull into second. Martin lined an RBI single to left and Tyler Charles smacked a 2-run homer out in leftcenter, tying the game.
“We gave them five outs,” said Red’s Todd Danforth. “But once you get through that inning and it’s a tie game, I don’t go back and look at anything bad.”
Heiserman got as far as third after his single in the Red seventh, but Rowe escaped damage with a pair of groundouts, setting the stage for Velcheck.
Facing the shift with one out in the seventh, Blevins grounded off Heiserman’s glove, with the deflection going to Martinez, ranging to his left. Martinez threw to first, but his throw pulled Anderson off the bag.
Shoffstall missed on his first two pitches to Velcheck and couldn’t afford to miss on his next one.
Velcheck didn’t either, sending the plum fastball into the night.
“He threw (the ball) right down the middle,” said Velcheck, who added, “I have to hit that!”
“He did what he’s was supposed to do and he crushed it,” Danforth said. “On a dead-red count, I tried to call a pitch on the inside. D.J. just left it out and (Velcheck) got his arms extended, at about 500 feet.”