BY JEFF FALK
MYERSTOWN – ‘It’s still early, no reason to panic.’
‘It’s still early, don’t read too much into it.’
It would seem that our perception of time is based on perspective. But in a league where every team makes the postseason, is it ever late?
On Wednesday evening on Lyle Krall Field at Elco High School, Fredericksburg got a leg up on Richland in what boiled down to a little early-season playoff positioning, with a 7-5 Lebanon County American Legion baseball league triumph. Fredericksburg took the lead for good with a three-run rally in the top of the fourth inning, got a gutsy route-going effort from right-hander Zane Merkel and benefited from seven Post 880 errors.
With the win, Fredericksburg improved to 2-1 in the local summer circuit. The outcome left Richland 1-2.
“Oh yeah, it’s still early,” said Fredericksburg head coach Jim McKinney. “It’s only our third game. We’re trying to figure out a starting rotation. Pitching-wise, we should be solid as long as we stay healthy.
“We played better,” McKinney continued. “We’re continuing to get better. We moved more runners. Sometimes we helped ourselves. Sometimes they (Richland) helped us. We played well enough to win.”
“Oh yeah, it’s still early,” said Richland head coach Travis Thome. “We’ve only seen three teams so far. Tonight we gave them (Fredericksburg) extra outs and lost 7-5. We’re competing.
“An area we can improve right now is our defense,” Thome continued. “I think that’s our biggest thing. That’s the area where we can’t make mistakes. We’ve got to be able to field the baseball and throw it. That’s what’s hurting us.”
What was decisive about Fredericksburg’s top-of-the-fourth inning was that, not only did it tally the eventual winning run, it was also a direct response to Richland’s bottom-of-the-third-inning, when it appeared the home team had captured the game’s momentum.
Down 4-3, F-burg’s rally was ignited by a Post 880 fielding miscue. Opportunistic Darrin Shirk made Richland pay with a triple down the right-field line, as did teammates J.C. Orta in the form of a sacrifice fly and Wyatt Beakler with his two-out RBI single.
Richland got one of those runs back and made it 6-5 in the bottom of the sixth, courtesy of Cody Brewer’s safety, a Fredericksburg error and Gavin Hain’s RBI-grounder. But Fredericksburg again made it a two-run game in the top of the seventh, when Orta drove home another unearned run.
“Yes, we award a game ball after every game, and it can go to someone who had a good game offensively or defensively, or for whatever reason,” said McKinney. “Tonight, we gave it to the team because no one was outstanding. No one threw a three-hitter. No one hit five home runs. It could be for the guy who hustled.
“Yes, most of the guys had good approaches at the plate,” McKinney added. “We had a couple of guys who weren’t picking the ball up right, or weren’t picking good pitches to hit. They weren’t selective. I try to get across to them, ‘Don’t be afraid to swing at the first good pitch that comes across the plate’.”
“It’s our third league game of the season,” said Thome. “We’re starting to see the ball a little better. It’s finally coming. Merkel threw pretty well. He’s not overpowering. It was a little more our pace.
“We showed up,” added Thome. “Defensively we didn’t play well. (Richland starter, Cody) Good threw 27 outs, and we scored five runs. In the end, we gave them a couple of extra outs. That was the difference in the ball game.”
Richland struck first, in the bottom of the first, against Merkel. Cole Blatt singled ahead of Brewer’s two-out, RBI safety.
Fredericksburg’s response was immediate. F-burg batted around in the top of the second, scoring three times on Brett Minnich’s lead-off double, Beakler’s sacrifice fly, Isaac Wengert’s run-producing single and Shirk’s sac fly.
“He needed work,” said McKinney of Merkel. “He didn’t pitch a whole lot in high school. This was a good thing for him. He got into trouble in five or six innings, and he pulled it out. And the defense bailed him out a couple of times.”
“Pitchers who throw a little slower, especially lefties, can keep guys off balance,” said Thome of Good. “I was really pleased with the way he threw. That’s all I can ask from him.”
Richland erased its 3-1 deficit with a three-run rally of its own, in the bottom of the third.
Wes Wentling led off with a single, and then was driven home by an RBI-double from Blatt. Blatt was knocked in by Aaron Dietz’s double, and Dietz scored on a wild pitch.
“I’ve been with this team since I was 13, and I only remember seeing one guy on the bench,” said Thome. “Before that, the bench was always full. It’s our area. Right now, baseball is not a priority any more. But when I played, we had our whole infield go to college.
“That’s hurting us,” continued Thome. “But there’s no excuses in baseball. We had nine players on the field.”
” It’s hard to say. They look like a young team,” said McKinney of Richland. “They have nine or ten kids again. It’s hard to do things when you have nine or ten kids. He’s (Thome) hoping and praying to have enough kids to play on Friday.
“He’s (Thome) got four or five kids who are out, and they don’t have a full roster,” McKinney continued. “It’s a struggle. How can you manage a team like that? You can’t. You don’t know who’s gong to show up. Fortunately this year, I don’t have that issue. Maybe we can keep a team on the field with guys who are always here. I think there’s some decent talent there (for Richland), but they’re young. He has three or four kids double-rostered.”
During the off-season, the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League voted 4-3 – the league’s six head coaches split their votes and it was ultimately decided by league president Bob Fourman’s vote – to include all six teams in its postseason. The top two regular-season finishers will receive byes, while the third- through sixth-place finishers will battle it out in the opening round.
“Every year we vote about playoffs and this year we went back to six teams,” said McKinney. “Our goal is always to win the championship. We want to be first or second in the regular season and get a bye. But no, I didn’t favor it. I favored the four-two (the top four teams qualify for the playoffs) format.
“The thing with legion baseball is that we can’t do anything until the high school season is done,” added McKinney. “You don’t have a team until June. You have a month, and then there’s playoffs. How much summer ball are you talking? I think that’s what’s pushing some of these guys out of legion ball.”
“We differ on a lot of things,” said Thome of his grand-father and league vice-president Lyle Krall, who voted for every team qualifying for the playoffs. “But we need games. Last year teams were forfeiting to save their playoff spots. Any time we get to play more games, I’m in favor of it. That’s what summer baseball is about.
“We’re only playing 16 (regular-season) games,” Thome added. “If you want to look at it like these games don’t mean anything, why even have the league? If we can add two games to the schedule, let’s add two games. If every team had 18 guys on their rosters, I could see it. But I don’t think there’s too many teams playing outside of our league schedule.”
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Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League Standings