ANNVILLE – It took some doing and it was certainly a long time coming. But the best team won the championship of the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball league.
And isn’t that the whole idea of playoffs, to determine a league’s best team?
But Myerstown didn’t win it because it was the most talented team. It won it with fundamentals and experience, and by matching the grit and cohesiveness of its worthy opponent.
On Thursday afternoon at Annville-Cleona High School, Myerstown earned the championship of the County legion summer baseball league by edging Annville 4-3 in the 13th inning of a game suspended from Wednesday evening because of darkness. After the two clubs fought to a 3-3 draw the night before, Myerstown emerged victorious by plating a run in the top of the 13th inning.
The quick outcome meant Myerstown won the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League’s best-of-five Warren ‘Lefty’ Grumbine championship series 3-1. As the Lebanon County representative, Myerstown, which also won the circuit’s regular season title, will carry a 19-2 mark into the eight-team, double-elimination Region Four tournament at Fredericksburg, beginning Saturday.
Runner-up Annville completed its campaign at 13-8. In seven overall meetings with Annville this season, Myerstown won six of them.
“To be honest, yeah,” said Myerstown head coach Johnny Mentzer to the ‘championship-or-bust’ notion. “If we don’t make regionals I’ve got to quit, because I screwed something up. As soon as I saw who was coming out and saw the roster, I knew we were the team to beat on paper. That’s the way we looked at it.”
“One hit or one play in two of the games we lost, and we win,” said Annville head coach Steve Hostetter. “But give Myerstown credit. They played a good series. They’re a good team. I’m not taking anything away from anything they accomplished.
“They’re (Myerstown) fundamentally sound,” continued Hostetter. “They have a great coaching staff. I know Johnny knows the game, and he’s pretty good at relaying that to his players. For as young as he is, I don’t know if I could’ve gone about coaching kids ten years younger than I.”
After playing three hours of toe-to-toe, who-will-be-the-first-to-blink? baseball on Wednesday, Myerstown performed a little two-out magic in the 13th inning on Thursday.
Annville reliever Braden Elliott retired the first two Myerstown batters he faced, before Myerstown spark plug Austin Douple lofted a Texas Leaguer that neither a diving second baseman Derrick Fallinger or rightfielder Taylor Prentice could come up with. Douple ended up at second base with a double, and a pitch later, Bawiec laced a ringing double to right-center field that scored him with what would prove to be the winning run.
“It was key for us to start fresh,” said Mentzer. “We were frustrated last night. It definitely was a new day, and the focus was there. We were here before any of their guys.
“I expected it to be a well-contested series,” added Mentzer. “They’re (Annville) scrappy. Yeah, we have the size, we have the talent, we have the strength. But we knew we weren’t going to run over them. It made it fun for me, but it did also make it stressful.”
“I would’ve loved to go one inning, and have it go the other way,” said Hostetter. “That would’ve been the best case scenario. I think I would’ve liked our chances in a Game Five. We may have even gone from the underdogs to the favorite.
After working Wednesday’s last six innings, Bawiec got the win by tossing a scoreless bottom of the 13th. He retired Annville in order, on a couple of flies and a ground out.
“It would’ve worked out better if I hadn’t used Conor seven innings,” said Mentzer. “We took batting practice at two o’clock at our field, and we took our best batting practice of the season. I knew we were going to put good swings on the ball. We finally got a break, and Conor ripped one into the gap.’
“I’ve never seen a team rely on one pitcher as much as Myerstown does on Conor,” said Hostetter. “He’s a stud pitcher, and he’s an inning eater. It seems like he can come back, and throw well. And they needed him to.
In light of his two wins, save and just two runs allowed over 14-plus innings of work, Bawiec was named the championship series’ most valuable pitcher. Jake Stager, the hero of Myerstown’s Game One win with a steal of home, was selected as the title set’s most valuable hitter.
“This is awesome,” said Mentzer, who took over the Myerstown program from his father John Mentzer, Sr. a few seasons back. “I grew up on a baseball field. This is what I grew up with. I knew I was destined to get the program from my dad. Yeah, he’s always in the background. He’s always in my ear. I talk to him after every game. I trust his opinion.”
“I’ve enjoyed coaching them (his players),” continued Hostetter. “They know the game. They fought and clawed all the way through.”
In 34 innings of the Warren ‘Lefty’ Grumbine championship series, Myerstown outscored Annville by a combined margin of 13-7.
“I would like to think so,” said Mentzer when asked if the best team won. “Are we going to have the best representative from Lebanon County, pitching-wise? Probably not. But we put ourselves in that hole. That’s not taking anything away from Annville. They made the series very competitive, and they could’ve rolled over after the second game.
“If I had our pitching lined up, we would’ve had a chance to compete right away (at regionals),” Mentzer continued. “Do we still have a chance to compete at regionals? Maybe. I definitely thought we could’ve had a chance if the pitching would’ve lined up. We’re going to put our best foot forward. We’ll see what happens.’
“Not only will we have a good core coming back next year, but there’s a couple of kids coming up from a teener team that was 15-1,” said Hostetter. “They might be able to step right in and fill some positions. But we’re going to miss those kids (Adam Connor, Mitch Rodkey, Robbie Beidler and Elliott).”