BY JEFF FALK
ANNVILLE – Between keeping batters at bay and keeping runners under wraps, the guy on the mound mans the most important defensive position in the game of baseball. But if a pitcher can field his position too, well that makes him the ultimate defender.
Yesterday, Mitch Rodkey’s athletic fielding play proved to be the perfect complement to his solid pitching performance.
Rodkey’s defense of an attempted safety squeeze bunt in the bottom of the sixth inning proved to be the difference on Thursday afternoon, as his Annville-Cleona baseball team shaded rival Elco 3-2 at A-CHS. Rodkey went the distance on a an eight-hitter, but couldn’t have gotten there without his defensive gem.
With Rodkey and the Little Dutchmen protecting a one-run edge, but the Raiders threatening with runners on first and third and one out, Elco skipper Chris Weidner called upon eight-hole hitter John Gettle to lay down a safety squeeze bunt. Gettle got it down, but in the direction of Rodkey’s mound.
Like a cat, Rodkey pounced on the bunt and flipped the ball to catcher Colton Long, who tagged out hard-charging Raider Travis Zimmerman barrelling down the third-base line. Then with a certain presence of mind, Long threw Gettle out at second base to complete a double play that ended the inning.
“Fortunately for us, it got back to Mitch pretty quickly,” said Annville-Cleona head coach Scott Shyda. “Mitch made a play. We needed that play at that time to get out of that trouble.”
“It was a safety squeeze,” said Weidner. “The runner was just reading the bunt as it goes down. John (Gettle) got a decent bunt down, but it was too much back to Mitch. In hind sight, maybe I should’ve just let him slip away. But we were trying to get something going.
“He’s (Rodkey) the best athlete they (the Little Dutchmen) have,” Weidner added, “which is why we were trying to scrape a run.”
Sprinkled with just a hint more intensity, the Lancaster-Lebanon Section Three-Four crossover contest was well-played on both sides. The outcome left the Little Dutchmen 6-4 overall and 5-3 in Section Four, and the Raiders 6-5 on the season sand 6-3 in Section Three.
“It matters to us because Elco is such a good team,” said Shyda. “It’s a win, but it’s a win against a very good ball club. It’s going to give us confidence, and it makes the Easter break a whole lot more enjoyable. And it was important to get back on track.
“It meant a little extra because we have such respect for them,” continued Shyda. “I like Chris (Weidner). He’s a good coach. We always know it’s going to be a good game with them. We came out on top against a very good team. It was a good win for us.”
“It goes back to how the season is going.” said Weidner. “On any given day, the scores are somewhat inexplicable. When Mitch is on the mound, they’re right there in the Section Four mix.
“We’re both in similar situations, two county teams nipping at the heels of Lancaster rivals,” added Weidner. “I’m glad to see that, because Lebanon County teams don’t always get a lot of respect. But respect is earned. It’s just good to see Lebanon County teams have opportunities.”
Rodkey’s play also helped him out duel Elco starter Jake Stager. While Rodkey was striking out six and walking one, Stager, another senior righthander, was whiffing 11, issuing three free passes and surrendering six hits.
“We knew we needed a big game out of Mitch,” said Shyda, “and he delivered. He’s had three strong starts this year, all against quality teams. Elco’s really been hitting the ball, but I have a lot of confidence in Mitch.
“He needs to mix his pitches, which is what he did well,” Shyda continued. “He threw his curveball for strikes. He’s consistent. He’s a tough kid. He has a way of doing things when he needs to do them. He’s a confident pitcher. He’s a guy you want in that situation.”
“Obviously we wanted to walk out of here with a win,” said Weidner. “My message to our guys was missed opportunities. I’ve got to tip my cap to Rodkey. We knew he was going to be a tough customer. He’s a good little pitcher.
“He’s not overpowering,” added Weidner. “But he is deceptive with his breaker. He was throwing it for strikes early.”
Annville-Cleona opened a 3-0 lead, in its second and third at-bats.
In the bottom of the second, Little Dutchmen Colton Long and Justin Ulrich opened the frame with back-to-back singles. Then after a walk to Adam Bennett loaded the bases, Caleb Setlock’s flare to right field gave A-C a 1-0 edge.
Annville-Cleona also loaded the bases in the third against Stager, courtesy of walks to Rodkey and Ulrich and a single from Colton Long. With two outs, Bennett’s single scored two teammates.
“His off-speed was controlling,” said Shyda of Stager. “We were so off-balanced. But I don’t think he was throwing the ball by a a lot of guys.”
“I thought Jake pitched equally as well,” said Weidner. “That’s baseball. They (the Little Dutchmen) got two dinks. Those come out in the wash, somewhere along the way. It was a well-pitched game, on both sides.
“It was a good game,” Weidner added. “Two of those three (A-C) runs were scored on dinked hits. I would’ve taken a dink hit in the sixth.”
Elco broke up Rodkey’s shutout bid in the top of the fourth.
With no one out, Colton Lawrence singled ahead of Cody Horst’s double, and Lawrence was brought around by Zimmerman’s RBI-grounder. But Rodkey did a fine job of avoiding further damage.
Then Raider nine-hole hitter Tyler Starry opened the top of the fifth by detonating a solo ‘bomb’ over the left-field fence, to pull Elco to within 3-2.
“He was our lead-off hitter the first four or five games,” said Weidner of Starry. “But no, he’s not your typical nine-hole hitter.
“I felt if we came out of this week with another win, it would keep us right behind Donegal,” continued Weidner. “The ultimate goal is to keep nipping at their heels.”
“That was a tough fought game,” said Shyda. “It was close. The outcome was in doubt in the last inning. The game could’ve gone either way. That double play (in the sixth inning) was huge. It bailed us out.
“If we lose, we’re 5-5,” Shyda continued. “6-4 just sounds a whole lot better. Elco is a good team.”