BY JEFF FALK
DILLSBURG – The Palmyra baseball team isn’t exceptionally strong. It’s not extremely fast. The Cougars aren’t overly talented.
But right now, something is going almost inexplicably right for Palmyra.
The Cougars are mentally tough. They’re making all the plays. And most importantly, they’re believing in themselves.
On a muggy Tuesday afternoon at Northern York High School, Palmyra continued its magical late/post-season run with a 1-0 triumph over Bishop McDevitt, in the semifinals of the District Three Class AAA tournament. The Cougars kept it going with a familiar formula, the efficient pitching of Isaac Blatt, some stingy, and at times spectacular, defense and a ‘give yourself up for your teammates’ approach at the plate.
The victory extended the Cougars’ amazing win streak to ten straight, not bad for a club that was hovering around the .500 mark at the midway point of the spring. It also ushered fifth-seeded Palmyra into Thursday’s District Three Class AAA championship game opposite 14th-seeded Hamburg, an 8-3 winner over Susquehanna Township, at 6:30 p.m. at First Energy Stadium in Reading.
Palmyra, which has already qualified for next week’s PIAA Class AAA postseason, is now 17-6 overall. Steve Groff’s ninth-seeded Bishop McDevitt outfit slipped to 16-8 on the year.
The Cougars had beaten the Crusaders in two previous, regular-season Mid-Penn Keystone Division meetings. Palmyra defeated Bishop McDevitt 11-4 in Harrisburg on April 5, and the Cougars edged the Crusaders 3-2 in Palmyra on April 25.
“I’ve been doing this 20-some years, and I don’t think I’ve ever won ten in-a-row,” said Palmyra skipper Tim Gingrich. “These guys are doing things I couldn’t have expected. I think a lot of it is confidence. We have guys stepping up and filling holes. We make plays. We’re getting good pitching.
“This is one of my favorite years,” continued Gingrich. “People weren’t expecting this. When you get to this point and time, it’s just a lot of fun.”
“I’m just really, really excited,” said Cougar junior catcher Nick Decarlo. “At the beginning of the season, I didn’t think much about it. But since the middle of the season, we’ve been going pretty well. The key is staying focused and playing simple baseball. That”s how you win games.”
By locating his fastball well and mixing in a change-up and curve-ball, Blatt had the Crusaders off-balance, but putting the ball in play. He counted a total of 69 pitches, a ridiculous average of less than ten per frame.
The 6-6 right-hander scattered four hits, struck out one, didn’t issue a walk and picked two runners off base, for the second straight outing. Blatt retired the last seven batters he faced.
The only real trouble he ran into came in the top of the fifth, when Bishop McDevitt sandwiched singles around a Cougar error. But Blatt got out of it by picking off a runner and inducing a lazy fly-out to center field.
“It’s either 67, 70 or 69,” said Gingrich of the pitch counts of Blatt’s last three outings. “He just makes people swing the bat. He forces batters to make contact. That’s all we try to do, try to get ahead in the count. And he started getting that change-up over, which he needs to do because he doesn’t throw that hard. He’s not going to get many strikeouts, and we’re playing good defense. What I like is he keeps the defense alive.
“When he got hurt (earlier in the year), he used all of the spring as practice,” added Gingrich. “It took two or three games for him to get healthy.”
“His key was hitting spots, locating the ball where he wanted,” said Decarlo of his battery mate. “And he was getting his breaking ball over. Coach G. was calling all the pitches. But sometimes I’d mix it up.”
With Crusader starter Joe Mione matching Blatt pitch for pitch, the game went to the bottom of the fifth inning knotted at zero. Palmyra pushed across the game’s only run in the frame, thanks in part to three sacrifices.
Cougar seven-hole hitter Brady Powell opened the frame with a single to right field, then Palmyra’s next two hitters executed sacrifice bunts, one of which Bishop McDevitt botched. Dylan Spagnola’s sacrifice fly to right scored Powell from third.
“No. No way,” said Gingrich, when asked if foresaw any of this. “We knew we could play better, but not a ten-game win streak. It all seems like it came together. Today it was whoever blinked first was going to win.
“He’s (Mione) tough,” Gingrich added. “He’s one of the toughest pitchers we faced all year. He was around the plate. But no, we hadn’t seen him this year.”
“For the seniors, it’s like one last big hurrah,” said Decarlo. “We’ve been playing together since we were little, but we were just trying to get in. I didn’t think we were going to make it here. But we turned the season around.”
The Cougars certainly made the most of their best opportunity against Mione. Prior to the fifth, Palmyra had not advanced a runner past first base against him.
The Cougars did threatened an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth inning, when Zach Yingst led off with a sharp single. Yingst was sacrificed by Decarlo and made it to third on a Brandon Charochak grounder, but Mione stranded him there.
“It was two good pitchers going at it,” said Gingrich. “That’s what I expected. It was pitching and a timely hit. I knew it was going to be a low-scoring game. That’s been our mantra during this ten-game win streak – defense. We’re making plays. That could’ve been the difference in the ball game.
“We’ve played them (the Crusaders) three times this season,” Gingrich continued. “There’s no surprises. I knew they were going to be ready to play. They’ve been hot. Having three teams from our division (Palmyra, Bishop McDevitt, Susquehanna Township) in the district semifinals is something to be proud of. It goes to show that we have a pretty good division.”
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PIAA District Three
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