MYERSTOWN – Jake Stager doesn’t lie. He doesn’t cheat. He doesn’t disrespect others. He doesn’t curse. Shoot, he even helps elderly ladies cross the street.
But Stager does steal. And although he doesn’t do it often, when he does it’s big stuff – things like hearts, momentum and home.
On Saturday afternoon, Stager’s daring and dramatic steal of the plate was the decisive play, as Myerstown edged Annville 1-0 in the opening game of the Lebanon County American Legion baseball’s best-of-five Warren ‘Lefty’ Grumbine championship series. Stager stole home early in teammate Grant Fisher’s at-bat, with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning, and it proved to be the only run of an intense contest.
With Annville reliever Jordan Gohn working out of the wind up, Stager took off from third base on his own and barely beat Gohn’s delivery to the plate. The pitch appeared to get to Annville catcher Hunter Long ahead of the head-first-sliding Stager, but the umpire ruled he was able to – in a cloud of dust – slide under Long’s tag.
Stager had led off the top of the sixth by being hit by a starter Justin Ulrich pitch. He was sacrificed to second by Tyler Starry and moved to third on a fly ball to right field off the bat of Cody Horst.
“There was nothing on,” said Myerstown head coach Johnny Mentzer emphatically. “That’s all him (Stager). All I said was, ‘He’s (Gohn) working from the wind-up, pay attention.’ If he hadn’t made it, you would’ve had to restrain me. When he took off it was like ‘What the heck are you doing?’
“It was like the call earlier in the game that went against us,” Mentzer continued. “The hand gets in there before the glove gets down. If I was Steve (Annville head coach, Hostetter), I’d be just as mad as he is. But no matter how ugly it is, a win’s a win.”
“To me, it’s an obvious missed call,” said Hostetter. “It shouldn’t have come down to that. We need to score runs. It’s a shame for the boys. They were disappointed to have the game decided like that. But you can’t dwell on things you don’t have control of.
“I know he’s (Gohn) more comfortable going out of the wind up,” continued Hostetter. “Maybe we should’ve had him going out of the stretch. My hat’s off to them for pulling it off.”
Before Stager stole the show, the type of game many anticipated between the league’s top two teams had unfolded – a tight-to-the-vest, well-played pitchers’ duel between Ulrich and Myerstown starter Chris Kreider. More of the same is expected Sunday when the series shifts to Annville-Cleona High School for a 2 p.m. Game Two.
The win was Myerstown’s 14th straight, and fourth consecutive over Annville this season. The regular season champions are now 17-1 on the summer, while Annville slipped to 13-5.
“It’s key,” said Mentzer. “In a five-game series, the first one’s always key. I felt comfortable. But it’s definitely momentum, getting this one out of the way.
“I think that (a championship series between Myerstown and Annville) was the expectation,” added Mentzer. “It’s what everyone wanted to see in the end. We knew it would be competitive. We gave everyone their money’s worth today.”
“I told them, ‘We’ve got to let this go. Move on,'” said Hostetter of his troops. “It’s a best-of-five. Come back tomorrow, win tomorrow and it’s all square. I don’t think there’ll be a letdown with this team. This is a pretty veteran team, a pretty savvy ball club. But it would be easy to say, ‘we just lost a tough, 1-0 game’, and hang your head.
“To win Game One is not as important in a five-game series as it is in a three-game series,” Hostetter added. “But it’s still important. If we lose tomorrow, we’re in trouble.”
Working on more days rest than sleep, Kreider went the first six-and-one-third innings to get the win. Reliever Conor Bawiec picked up the save by recording the last two outs in the seventh.
Kreider worked out of a bases-loaded predicament in the top of the first, and went on to strand a total of ten Annville runners on base. The slingin’ southpaw yielded seven hits, whiffed four and did not issue a free pass.
“He worked third shift, got two hours of sleep and came out here and gave me that type of effort,” said Mentzer of Kreider. “That’s what he does. He misses bats.
“He’s a thrower,” continued Mentzer. “I don’t know if he’s at a pitcher’s level. In a season like this, he wanted to throw and I thought, ‘Why not?’. He’s taken the ball every time I’ve handed it to him, and given me everything I asked of him.”
“I don’t know,” said Hostetter when asked about Kreider. “He doesn’t look overpowering. But he has a pretty good breaking ball. It seems like it’s hard to get on. We were lunging at it. We were hitting the ball in the air. I’m not sure why we couldn’t hit him. In the first three innings, we left seven runners on. We need to execute at bat and hit. If we don’t, this could be a short series.
“Yeah, it was the type of game I expected,” Hostetter continued. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of games in the series are decided by one run, or decided by a play like that. That seems how all of our games with Myerstown are. Great games, that’s what you should see the rest of the way. I hope so.”
A converted pitcher not unlike Kreider, Ulrich was on top of his game as well. He retired the first five Myerstown hitters he faced, before Kyle Bogdonovich singled with two outs in the second.
Ulrich surrendered just two more safeties, struck out three and walked one, before giving way to Gohn with one out in the sixth. An inning earlier, Annville outfielder Taylor Prentice had kept the game scoreless by nailing Bogdonovich at the plate with a cannon shot from right field.
“He threw strikes,” said Mentzer of Ulrich. “He kept us off balance. I almost wish someone would throw a little harder against us. But he threw a great game.
“It’s the same story for us,” added Mentzer. “We just keep leaving guys on base.”
“I told him he deserved a win today. No doubt,” said Hostetter of Ulrich. “He’s sneaky quick. I wouldn’t say he’s overpowering. And on top of it, he’s a great kid. He’ll do anything you ask him to do He’s a good athlete, and he’s come a long way with his pitching.”
In the top of the seventh, Annville threatened on Mitch Rodkey’s one-out single and a pair of errors. But that was before the hard-chucking Bawiec, who is expected to make a start later in the series, came on to slam the door.
“I would like to see it not be as close,” said Mentzer. “If we hit the ball, I think it’s a different game today. We had more threats in the middle innings, but we just didn’t get them in. We need to do better with our chances.
“I’d say we’re competitive (with Annville),” Mentzer continued. “They’ve got a great bunch of kids. I respect all their kids and Coach Hostetter. They play the game as hard as we do. There’s no bad blood. It’s always good to be in games like this.”
“They are talented,” said Hostetter of M-town. “They’re big. They’re formidable. But I don’t think that intimidates us. Our kids have been around enough to know they can play with anyone. They (Myerstown) are well-coached. They know the game.”