MYERSTOWN – For some, hope is at its highest at the beginning of a season. For Fifth Ward and Richland, their greatest hope is that this year is simply different than the last one – or the last few.
On Thursday evening at Elco’s Lyle Krall Field, Fifth Ward edged Richland 6-4 in an early-season battle of perennial playoff outsiders in the Lebanon County American Legion baseball circuit. After Richland had come back twice to tie the score, Fifth Ward pieced together the decisive two-run rally in the top of the seventh inning.
Ignited by two Richland errors at the start of the seventh, Fifth Ward plated its runs on Heisler Jiminez’s RBI-single and a passed ball. But it was a key single from Donovan Ott that had kept the rally going.
“Things went pretty well for us tonight,” said Lebanon head coach Tony McDonnell. “We’re doing a lot of things we didn’t do last year. We’re playing more team ball.
“There for a while, we were acting like we were snake-bitten,” McDonnell added. “But we’re hitting the ball like crazy.”
“We play better defense and we might’ve eeked out our first win,” said Richland manager Lyle Krall. “But we had guys playing of out position. We had a 15-year-old catching who’s getting experience.
“We beat the weather anyways,” Krall added. “We can’t beat anyone else.”
“(Jose) Lopez threw well,” said McDonnell of his starting pitcher. “But he was a little hurt. He was struggling at the end. But if we can keep hitting the ball the way we’ve been hitting the ball, we’ll be OK.
“We saw him (Richland starter Dylan Ziegler) twice last year,” McDonnell continued. “He’s a left-hander. He’s crafty. He baffled the heck out of us last year.”
“That’s when you have to play good defense,” said Krall. “We made a few great plays. But they hit some balls we should’ve made the plays on. We allowed too many base runners but Ziegler didn’t pitch bad.
“Fifth Ward is a much improved team,” Krall continued. “And we’re still trying to find our identity. They (the Golden Gophers) have some experience from last year. They have some veteran players. Their pitching staff is much better than it was last year.”
With the score deadlocked at two in the top of the fifth, Fifth Ward went back ahead when Josh Hammaker singled, went to second on an error and scored on Jose Ruiz’s sacrifice fly to center. An inning later, Hammaker gave his team some cushion by scoring Mark Pyles, who had been hit by a pitch and stole second.
“Early in the season, I’m pleasantly surprised,” said McDonnell. “But it’s early. We got a couple of new kids and they’re going to help. We came in with high expectations. We had try-outs and we had to cut players.
“Lyle’s young,” continued McDonnell. “They’re not going to hurt themselves defensively. The kids want to play for him.”
“He pitched very good,” said Krall of Lopez. “He had a good overhand fastball and he had a good overhand curveball. He threw well.”
Hammaker also stroked an RBI single in the top of the first, to give the Golden Gophers a 1-0 edge. Fifth Ward added to its advantage in the second, courtesy of Mike Medero and his run-producing double.
Richland got one of those runs back in the bottom of the third, when Devon Lutz ripped a two-out, RBI single. Then in the fourth, Post 880 got even, thanks to a Ginder sacrifice fly.
“We have a pretty nice team,” said McDonnell. “A lot of them (his players) look like they want to play. Our expectations are pretty high if we get some pitching.
“That’s (the postseason) our goal,” McDonnell added. “We’re taking it one game at a time. They only take four teams (for the playoffs) and we’re going to be one of them. We think we have a really good chance of sneaking in as the fourth-place team. But we’ve got to do it.”
“It’s going to be that way (a learning experience) all summer,” said Krall. “They (his players) do not have the varsity, high school experience. You can learn by sitting on the bench and watching, but you have to play the game. They have to play.
“Last year we had to rely on junior (legion) players,” added Krall. “Tonight we had nine players. Right now, I’m concerned about numbers. I do this for the guys who are loyal to the team, who really want to play. It is disturbing. We had some good years, but since 2007 it’s been down hill.”
Lebanon out hit Richland 8-7. All four of Richland’s errors came from the fifth inning on, while Fifth Ward stranded a total 13 runners on base.