Strasburg/Willow Street, Ephrata reach semifinals

Jason Frank cranks up against Comet Gold.

By Dave Byrne
New Era Correspondent

Still searching for their first taste of victory in their fourth career New Era Tournament appearance, the members of the Ephrata Pride made really sure they got it.

Looking to continue the successes they experienced as midget-midgets and junior-midgets, the members of Strasburg/Willow Street Red passed a major gut-check.

Ephrata (21-8) exploded for 13 first-inning runs and went on to defeat Comet Gold 19-3 at Ephrata’s War Memorial in Monday’s New Era Tournament Midget Division doubleheader opening game, shortened to 4 innings by the 10-run mercy rule.

In Monday’s nightcap, Strasburg/Willow Street (16-4) broke open a tight pitchers’ duel with a 5-run sixth inning, then survived a 4-run bottom of the seventh by the Lititz Oddfellows to win 7-6.

Monday’s winners advance to Friday night’s semifinals, back in Ephrata. They will play each other at approximately 7:45 p.m., following the other semi, between Hempfield Black and Conestoga Valley, set for 5:15 p.m.

Lititz’s Brandon Geib and SWS’ Chris Shehan matched pitch-for-pitch through four innings. Geib had allowed just three hits and one run. That came in the second inning, when he walked three straight batters, the last, Domminick Lombardo, with the bases loaded.

Meanwhile, Shehan had allowed just one hit, Eric Rehm’s infield single, and no runs.

Lititz (10-8) took the lead in the fifth on Rehm’s second hit of the night and a wild pitch, in an inning prolonged by Sam Grube’s hard takeout slide breaking up a potential double play.

The lead was shortlived. Strasburg/Willow Street loaded the bases in its half of the sixth on a bad-hop single, a walk and an error. It was the third time in the game Red had loaded the bases and the third time leadoff hitter Jeff Bianchi was the next batter.

He’d grounded out and forced a runner at home (on the first pitch) the first two times, but this time was patient and worked a six-pitch walk.

“My mindset was to make him throw some pitches, make him throw strikes,” he said.

That forced in the tying run, and Red took a 6-2 lead on 2-run singles by Ryan Visnewski and Shehan.

“Visnewski came up with a clutch hit,” said Red manager Tim Bianchi, “and Shehan came through behind him.”

Jeff Bianchi produced Red’s seventh run when he hit into a fielder’s choice in the middle of the infield with the bases loaded in the seventh inning.

It was a seemingly insignificant run at the time, but Lititz loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh and Shehan walked Matt Jones to force in a run.

Rich Berkey grounded out to short for the second out as Rehm crossed the plate with Lititz’s fourth run. Shehan then got ahead of Geib, 0-and-2, before Geib ripped a ball to left-center that bounced on the warning track and over the fence for a 2-run, groundrule double.

“I got a little tired,” Shehan said, “got one ball up, and he crushed it.”

That was Shehan’s last batter, as he switched places with Bianchi. Bianchi then walked J.D. Deffibaugh and Grube to load the bases.

Nervous?

“Not really,” he said. “A couple times this year I came in in similar situations and got the job done.”

Kyle Jones tested his nerves by lining a 2-2 pitch to center, and Bianchi broke into a full-scale sweat as he saw center fielder David Nicklaus stumble while breaking to the ball.

“I was panicking,” Bianchi allowed.

Nicklaus recovered, tracked the ball and squeezed it for the final out, lifting Red’s spirits and breaking Lititz’s hearts.

“They’re upset,” said Oddfellow manager Frank Camera. “It’s tough to lose by one run. I would’ve rather lost 7-2 than to come back and have it so close. We battled, had our opportunities. If Brandon (Geib) had pulled that ball a little bit more… ”

There were no ifs in the first game.

The Pride rocked Comet starter Sheldon Witmer — a two-time New Era Tournament championship-game-winning pitcher with six hits, a walk, a hit batter and an error.

The only out Witmer registered was an infield force, as Nick Klingan hit an RBI double and Shaun Hagey a 2-run single, and Ben Snyder and Ryan Grube hit RBI singles.

Ryan Eshleman came on and got no outs, walking three, giving up Hagey’s second RBI hit of the inning and throwing two run-scoring wild pitches. Matt Haverstick relieved and got an out, albeit a sacrifice fly, but two more runs scored on an infield error before he finally closed the door.

“Oh my gosh, we wouldn’t stop hitting,” Hagey said. “This is how it’s been most of the time for us. We’ve been hitting the ball all year.”

Yeah, but nothing like this.

“I was a little concerned after we lost the (Lanco Section 1) championship series to a very good Hempfield team,” said Pride manager Craig Kliewer. “I wasn’t sure how we’d respond.

“I guess the first inning told me how we were going to respond. The first inning we really wanted it. The Comet team didn’t have a chance tonight.”

“We knew coming in we had to play a perfect game,” admitted Gold manager Carl Caruthers. “They jumped on (Witmer) and that was it. It was over early.”

But the scoring was not over. Zach Harbold knocked in three runs with a two-out, bases-loaded double in the second, then scored on an error on Justin Homsher’s ground ball. Jimmy Hurst, subbing for Harbold, capped Ephrata’s scoring with a single in the third inning.

Comet Gold (18-5) broke up Jason Frank’s one-hit shutout in the fourth on Witmer’s 2-run homer and Kevin Steinkirchner doubled and scored on a wild pitch in the fifth inning.

Chris Shehan delivers against Lititz.