BY JEFF FALK
ANNVILLE – When it comes right down to it, does the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League’s regular season really matter? It does on one specific cosmic plane.
If the local summer baseball circuit’s upcoming playoff tournament resembles its regular season in any way, we’re in for a real knock-down, drag-out barnburner of a postseason.
On a soupy Thursday evening at Annville-Cleona High School, Annville stirred up the County Legion League standings even more, with a wild, come-from-behind, 8-7 extra-inning victory over Fifth Ward. Veteran Cameron Hoch starred in the role of hero for Annville, knocking in the winning run that capped a remarkable five-run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning.
After Fifth Ward had scored four times in the top of the eighth to take a 7-3 lead, Annville responded with five runs – after two outs had been recorded – on RBIs from Noah Pfautz, Trevan Elliott, Sal Biondollo and Hoch. The inning had been kept alive when Devin Singer reached first base on a swinging third strike in the dirt, on what would’ve been the third out of the bottom of the eighth.
Annville had sent the game to extra frames with a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning, before Fifth Ward sent ten hitters to the dish and scored four runs in the top of the eighth. Ziare Leger, Cody Kissinger, Elijah Blauch and Nate Portes all drove home Golden Gopher runs, after Wilfred Lopez-Aponte and Raymond Colon-Rodgriguez had opened the frame with singles.
When the dust had settled, the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League’s landscape had shifted.
The outcome meant Annville concluded its regular-season at 8-7. Depending on the results of Friday’s scheduled finales, Annville could finish the regular season as high as second and as low as fourth.
Fifth Ward, which slipped to 7-5-1 in the circuit, finishes its regular year on Friday with a double-header at front-running Campbelltown. A sweep would give Fifth Ward the regular-season championshp and the top seed in the upcoming. A split would mean Fifth Ward finishes second, and an 0-2 outcome would drop Lebanon to fourth.
The league’s six-team, double-elimination playoff tournament is slated to get underway on Monday. The top two finishers from the regular season will receive byes.
Annville swept its regular-season series with Fifth Ward 3-0.
“We’ll probably be third,” said Annville head coach Ken Sauley. “But it depends on what happens on Friday. If we finish third or fourth, we get a home game. It is what it is.
“Everybody’s about the same,” continued Sauley. “The standings are tight now. You can’t say anybody’s the favorite. It’s like flipping a coin. It’s like, ‘What are you going to get tonight?'”
“I’m going into it like, ‘We’ve got to win the first game tomorrow,'” said Fifth Ward head coach Greg Kreiser. “We’ll worry about the second game when it happens. Essentially, we want to be in the top two to get a bye.
“You don’t get to regionals by winning the regular-season championship,” Kreiser continued. “You’ve got to get hot in the playoffs. I think anybody can beat anybody right now.”
Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Annville chased Ffith Ward starter Lopez-Aponte.
Elliott got things going for Annville with a lead-off walk and Pfautz kept them going with an RBI-double. Hoch knotted the score with a clutch run-scoring double.
“I thought for sure that we were shot,” said Sauley. “They (the Golden Gophers) made some mistakes that helped us out. But we made some mistakes too. Who knows? It was a good fight. We’ve been playing some lousy baseball, so I’m just glad we fought back.
“The kids who don’t usually play as much came through,” added Sauley. “But the key to me was the third strike in the dirt. Devin Singer busted his butt to get to first base. The other thing was we just started to hit the ball.”
“We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Kreiser. “We couldn’t catch a fly ball and we dropped a third strike. The game was ours. We should’ve been out of that.
“It doesn’t help that we have nine (darn) kids every game,” Kreiser added. “That seems to be the problem with everyone.”
Fifth Ward snapped a one-all deadlock by pushing across a pair of runs in the top of the fifth inning.
Lebanon did its damage with Lopez-Aponte’s run-scoring, suicide squeeze that turned into a bunt single and Colon-Rodriguez’s RBI fielder’s choice. But the stage had been set by back-to-back lead-off singles from Blauch and Portes.
“He hasn’t really pitched that much,” said Sauley of his starter, Hunter Kelley. “He hasn’t had to go that far. He clearly ran out of gas. It’s not easy to come in and throw strikes. Hunter was pitching to contact, but they weren’t getting good swings off of him.
“They (the Golden Gophers) didn’t quit either,” Sauley continued. “They’re getting their kids to come. They seem like a good group of kids.”
“He kept us in check, pretty much,” said Kreiser of Kelley. “He threw the ball over the plate. We just didn’t hit it.”
Annville opened the scoring with a run in the top of second. Kelley was hit by a pitch, made it to second on a wild pitch, went to third on a throwing error and scored on another wild pitch.
“He was throwing strikes,” said Sauley of Lopez-Aponte. “He was around the plate. They (his players) weren’t patient. But we started hitting the ball in the seventh inning.”
“He threw well. He threw really well,” said Kreiser of his starter. “He was around 70 pitches going into the last inning. He got up (in the strike zone) and they hit it. We scored a couple of runs and then gave them right back.”
Antonio Collazo’s sacrifice fly in the top of the fourth inning tied the score at one for Fifth Ward. Leger led off with a walk, went to second on a wild pitch and then stole third.
“We’ve got Sonny (Biondollo) going on Monday,” said Sauley. “And our regular pitching staff from there.”
“I would say, ‘yeah,'” said Kreiser, when asked if the playoffs will determine the success of his team’s season. “We’ve done a lot of good things this year. But we’ve done a lot of bad things too. Tonight was an example of that. I like to win.”
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Lebanon County American Legion
Baseball League Standings