BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – When the outcome because critical, the importance of a good start is maginified expotentially, by a factor greater than two.
On Thursday afternoon at Hershey High School, the Cedar Crest baseball team rode quality starts by senior righthander Dan Black and its once-slumbering offense to a 9-4 triumph over South Western, in a quarterfinal contest of the District Three Class AAAA playoffs. Black came out throwing strikes and the Falcons offense came out hitting seeds, as Cedar Crest carried a 9-0 lead into the fifth inning.
Cedar Crest nearly batted around in scoring four runs in its opening at-bat. Then the Falcons sent ten batters to the dish while plating five runs in the second.
The victory assured second-seeded Cedar Crest, now 19-4, at least two more games this year. The first will be Tuesday’s District Three Class AAAA semifinal tilt against either Central Dauphin or Wilson, at a site and time to be determined.
A win there would send the Falcons to Thursday’s district championship game and qualifying them for the PIAA Class AAAA tournament.
South Western, the tenth seed, finished its campaign at 14-8.
“I thought we played really well,” said Cedar Crest skipper Chris Groff. “I was really pleased with how we came out, just the excitement. We know we can play from behind. But when we have the lead, we have a real good chance to win.”
“We scored four in the first, and the game was pretty much done,” said Black, who’s headed to Virginia Commonwealth. “I didn’t do well mechanically, which is something I need to work on. But when we start scoring runs like that, we’re not going to lose. It’s just a good win.”
Cedar Crest, which had scored a total of three runs in its 13 previous innings of playoff baseball, assumed a 1-0 lead when its second batter of the game, Garrett Getz, homered deep to left field. A Zach Hostetter walk, a Zach Smith single and an out later, designated hitter Logan Fullmer delivered a three-run dinger down the left field line to make it 4-zip.
“Getz’s home run was a key,” said Groff. “Hostetter and (Daulton) Ritter had big two-strike hits (in the second) for extra bases and RBIs. Some of those guys stringing hits together was important. There were a bunch of them. That got us rolling and kept us rolling.
“Logan’s been our designated hitter for most of the season,” Groff added. “I thought he put some good swings on the ball on Monday (in a 3-1 win over Cedar Cliff). I felt good about him hitting today.”
“The pitcher they threw surprised us all because he threw five innings on Monday,” said Black. “He just didn’t have good stuff and we hit him. They (the Mustangs) might’ve thought we can’t hit lefties.”
Cedar Crest was at it again in the second. Nine-hole hitter Mike Wealand started it with a double, while Josh Hamaker, Fullmer and Hostetter all drove home runs.
But the big blow was struck by Ritter, a ringing two-run triple.
“On Monday, we changed our lineup,” said Groff. “I felt like we needed a jump-start. The time off allowed us to look at a bunch of different numbers. I thought Getz in the two-spot and Ritter in the five-spot were better fits.
“We hit Totaro kind of hard the last time we played Hempfield,” Groff continued. “That’s our first time (scoring that many runs) in a while. And we hit the ball hard.”
“When you have some runs to work with you don’t have to make the perfect pitch,” said Black. “It relaxes you when you have a lead like that. When you’re working with the lead, it’s your job to keep the momentum. When we have a nine-run lead the game is over.”
Before giving way to Cameron Mathis to start the seventh, Black surrendered a total of three hits and two earned runs, fanned nine and issued four free passes.
“Dan pitched fantastic,” said Groff. “He came out and threw strikes. When you give our defense ground balls, they’re going to make solid plays behind you. Those double plays were awesome. Our guys had to move around a little to make them.
“I thought I saw his legs go in the sixth. He was gutting it out to get through that inning,” Groff continued. “To me, we have three aces, Dan, Logan and Cameron. When you look at their pitching numbers, they’re phenomenal. I have confidence in all three.”
“I felt good,” said Black. “It’s been a while since I pitched, about two weeks. But I wasn’t worried about coming out flat.
“Me and Logan get along fine,” added Black. “We don’t care about anybody who says who’s better and who’s not. We’re both in similar situations. But together, we can’t be beat. All the talk doesn’t bother us at all.”
Cedar Crest certainly didn’t sustain its early-inning intensity throughout, managing just a Getz single over the final four frames. Although the Mustangs scored runs in each of their final three at-bats, they never seriously threated the Falcons’ advantage.
“The game slowed down a little bit,” said Groff. “I thought we had a little bit of guys trying to follow suit with home runs.
“We definitely want to win districts,” said Black. “We’re all excited about it. It was a goal coming in. After the loss to Lampeter-Strasburg (in the Lancaster-Lebanon League playoffs) we were down a little bit. But now we want to see how far we can go.”