BY JEFF FALK
ANNVILLE – Undetectable by the naked eye, last year Annville flew under the radar. This year, Annville is a blip on everyone’s early detection devices.
And its signal is getting stronger.
On Tuesday evening at Annville-Cleona High School, Annville raised some eye brows around the Lebanon County American Legion baseball league by winning its third straight game, 9-3 over Fifth Ward. The defending champs banged out ten hits and batted around in the third inning, when they broke open a one-run game.
Annville’s three-game winning streak has it 4-3 in the local summer circuit and in the thick of the championship chase. For winless Lebanon, which was without the services of starting catcher Mark Pyles, who’s out for the season with a bone fracture in his leg, the loss was its sixth straight to open the year.
“Unless something happens drastically one way or the other, you can pretty much put those four teams up there,” said Annville manager Steve Hostetter, of his club’s neighbors in the league penthouse, Fredericksburg, Campbelltown and Myerstown. “Our objective coming in was to win the league. And I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anybody this year. We can easily do that (repeat) if we take care of business.”
“Our goal is to win it, again,” said Annville’s emotional leader and centerfielder, Tyler Napierala, “to keep our title. We started out slow. But we’re back in our winning mentality.”
“Steve (Hostetter) does a nice job with those guys,” said Fifth Ward head coach Tony McDonnell. “They play hard. They play hard every play. Don’t hit the ball towards Napierala in center, because you’re not going to get a hit out of it.”
Down 3-2 and locked in a struggle with spunky Lebanon, Annville busted the game open with five runs in the bottom of the third. Annville’s Nat Hughes tied the score with a run-scoring single, Mitch Rodkey gave it the lead for good with a two-run double and lead-off man Josh Henning provided a little insurance with another run-producing two-bagger.
That made it 7-3, for those of you scoring at home.
“I thought our bats were a little lackluster,” said Hostetter. “We’re not the kind of team that can take any team lightly. Anything can happen on any given night. But that’s hard to get through to 18-year-olds.
“I guess I was a little displeased (with his team’s offense),” Hostetter continued. “My expectations are a little higher than most people’s. I think sometimes we get a little undisciplined at the plate. But I don’t want to take their aggressiveness away from them, make them afraid to swing. We had a couple of extra-base hits tonight. That was big, and we got some clutch hits.”
“We hit the ball pretty well tonight,” said Napierala. “We hit the ball well last night and it carried over to tonight. We’re just starting to click. We’re coming together. We’re starting to hit and we’re putting it all together.”
“We played fair,” said McDonnell. “We’re struggling to get guys here. We’ve got guys playing all over the place. We’ve been playing good. Tonight was a disappointment.
“Getting that first win would be huge,” added McDonnell. “This is the one we thought was going to be the first one. We played tough the last two games. We still think we can be in the top four and make the playoffs. We’re three games out. We’ll never tell them (his players) that the goals have changed. Maybe some of the kids’ goals have changed, but our’s (the coaches’) haven’t.”
Perhaps the best word to describe Annville starter and winner Braden Elliot was ‘effective’ or mabye ‘efficient’. Employing a four-pitch first inning, Elliot needed only 67 pitches to get through seven innings, pretty much unscathed.
Elliot did give up eight hits, but struck out three and didn’t issue a walk.
“I thought we did a lot of things right,” said Hostetter. “Braden was big. They put the ball in play, but we made all the plays. I’m not sure I’ve ever been involved with a game where a pitcher threw less than 70 pitches in all seven innings.”
“Our pitcher threw well,” said Napierala of his 16-year-old teammate. “We just needed him to throw strikes. And we came through for him with our bats.”
“He threw strikes,” said McDonnell of Elliot. “He didn’t walk a batter. When we did hit him, they made some nice plays behind him.”
Lebanon struck first and took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second, courtesy of Ben Berkheimer’s one-out double and Tyler Roth’s RBI-single. Annville fired back in the second and took a 2-1 edge when Justin Ulrich scored on a wild pitch and Henning stole home.
Fifth Ward re-took the lead in its next at-bat, as first Bryan Rivera, and then Berkheimer drove home teammates.
“We’re on the right track,” said Hostetter. “I think we’re starting to feel more comfortable, at the plate and overall. The first game they (his players) were overwhelmed a little bit. But I think they’re starting to gell.
“What I see is that any one of those four teams (Annville, Fredericksburg, Myerstown or Campbelltown) could win it (the title),” added Hostetter. “Campbelltown laid a can of whup (butt) on us, but then they got beat. For whatever reason, we seem to struggle against Campbelltown. Yet we seem to play pretty good against Fredericksburg. And we’re always in a battle with Myerstown. But for me personally, Campbelltown is the team to beat.”
“We’re just a good team,” said Napierala. “We have good bonding. We’ve got each other’s backs and we trust each other.”
“We scored the first run, and then re-took the lead,” said McDonnell. “And I thought we were in pretty good shape.But they (Annville) started to catch up to Jose (starter, Lopez).
“We need to get that first one (win),” McDonnell continued, “and beat a quality team. When we get that first one, we’re going to get going.”
Annville used a Napierala triple and a Mitch Hostetter double to plate its final runs, in the bottom of the sixth.
Napierala, Henning and Ulrich each collected a pair of safeties for the winners. For Fifth Ward, Rivera and Berkheimer each contributed a couple of hits.
“What I like about Tyler is that he brings an air of confidence to our team,” said Hostetter. “There’s a fine line between being cocky and confident. He’s very confident. He brings an air to the team like, ‘we’re going to win’. He doesn’t say a lot, but he leads by example. He’s a good player and he plays hard.”
“I’m just the team leader,” said Napierala. “I try to keep everybody in the game. I try to show everybody we can do it and we can win games.”
“Last year we were 8-8 and tied for fourth,” said McDonnell. “The goals at the beginning of the season were set pretty high. We only lost three players from last year and we thought we’d be in the mix right from the beginning. We thought we had a heck of a team coming back.
“What happened is what I call ‘The Lebanon High mentality’,” McDonnell continued. “You can’t instill a winning attitude when you have a closed mind. In our minds, we’re competitive right now. But I’m not into moral victories.”