BY JEFF FALK
MYERSTOWN – Last night, local American Legion baseball fans were treated to a preview of the upcoming postseason. If Tuesday was any indication, it should be a very intriguing and entertaining set of series.
Austin Lawrence’s RBI-single to left field with one out in the bottom of the seventh scored Colin Miller with the winning run, as Myerstown edged Annville 8-7 in a back-and-forth, roller-coaster of a contest. Miller had led off the frame with a single and was sacrificed to second by Tyler Starry, before Lawrence took Annville reliever Tanner Fitting the other way for the game-winner.
The result was Myerstown’s third straight one-run triumph over Annville this year, and moved it to 9-4 in the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League and kept it alive for the fictitious regular-season championship, and the top seed in next week’s playoffs that accompanies it. Annville, now 8-5, has also already qualified for the postseason.
“The playoffs are going to be fun,” smiled Myerstown manager Johnny Mentzer. “It’s great. It’s about who’s going to play the best baseball at the right time. Our goal was to win two of three this week and go into the playoffs with some momentum.”
“Yeah, I think this will be the kind of game you’ll see in the playoffs,” said Annville head coach Steve Hostetter. “When I think of the top four teams, anyone can win it. I expect the series to go three games and five games. It should be very competitive. But you never know.”
Down a run, Annville tied the game at seven in the top of the seventh, on Justin Ulrich’s two-out, run-scoring single – after Myerstown reliever Mike Wealand sniffed out and short-circuited Annville’s suicide squeeze attempt. In the bottom of the sixth, Myerstown had grabbed a 7-6 edge courtesy of a two-out, two-run single from Ryan Wierbach.
“We needed that,” said Mentzer. “The first four innings we could not get a hit. But we got a lot of clutch hits in the last three. I’ll take those chinkers any day.
“(M-town starter, Jake) Stager was over a hundred pitches to start the seventh, and I knew if he got into trouble I was going to get him,” said Mentzer of his move to Wealand. “Jake and (Annville starter) Tyler Napierala, I tip my hat to them. They both threw their hearts out.”
“Napierala was in the 130s, and I don’t know where he ended up,” said Hostetter of his starter’s pitch count. “I wanted to take him out in the fifth, but he said he felt good. I thought he gave us the best chance of winning. I always take some of the blame for losses. But we played well from the beginning of the game to the end.
“I wanted to make a statement, ‘Hey, we can beat these guys,'” Hostetter added. “And I think we can. The little things cost us tonight. I just felt like we gave them the game. But Johnny’s crew came out and played hard.”
Annville’s four-run rally in the fourth gave it a 5-1 lead and appeared to give it a stranglehold on the outcome. Josh Henning’s two-run, two-out single capped a rally that also included an Ulrich RBI, three Myerstown wild pitches and an error.
But Myerstown wasted little time responding, scoring three times in the bottom of the fourth to pull within a run. Lawrence, who finished four-for-four, was in the middle of that uprising via an RBI-triple, while Starry also knocked in a run.
“They’re a great team,” said Mentzer of Annville. “They battle. I think we have the bigger lineup, the bigger names. But they (Annville) play the game the way it needs to be played. They play hard, which says a lot for Annville baseball. They’re the defending champs.”
“I truthfully think they take on the attitude and charisma of Johnny,” said Hostetter of Myerstown. “He will do anything to win. He brings that type of attitude to the game. They play hard every game. That’s all you can really ask from a team.”
Braden Elliot’s run-producing single in the top of the fifth made it 6-4 Annville. But a Cody Horst safety scored Wierbach with M-town’s fifth run in the bottom of the frame.
“It was plays across the board, by both teams,” said Mentzer. “I thought we played well tonight. We had a couple of defensive blunders. I think we need to hit the ball a little better situationally , and we’re doing that. I don’t think any of the top four teams have played bad baseball.
“It’s about momentum going into the playoffs,” added Mentzer. “If we can win these games this week, we can get the one seed (for the postseason). And we’d be playing our best baseball.”
“Our first objective is to win the (regular-season) league,” said Hostetter. “By winning out, we thought we could do that. But we had to win tonight, and we needed someone to knock off Fredericksburg. Winning the (regular season) league is important. I don’t take any game lightly. That’s the way I played. That’s the way I coach.
Myerstown struck first, taking a 1-0 lead in the opening inning when Starry walked, went to third on a Lawrence two-bagger and scored on a wild pitch. Annville answered in the third, as Adam Conner tripled and scored on a throwing error on the same play.
“No, there really is no favorite,” said Mentzer. “Everyone is on the same level. I think if you talked to all four coaches we’re all scared of each other. I just want to get into the playoffs and play well.”
“I guess you could say execution is going to be the key,” said Hostetter of the postseason. “The team that comes out of this is going to be the team that does the little things. An extra-base hit is a little thing. Or tagging up on a fly ball is a little thing. I think that’s how close it’s going to be.”