BY JEFF FALK
MYERSTOWN – Rare is the play that possesses the power to change the complexion of an entire game, series, or even a season. But just such a play occurred last night in a Lebanon County American Legion baseball opening-round playoff game between Myerstown and Annville.
Who says baseball isn’t a contact sport?
On Tuesday night at Myerstown Post 55 Field, a collision between Annville shortstop Braeden Elliott and left fielder Zach Southall propelled Myerstown to a 5-0 win, in Game One of the best-of-three semifinal series. At the time of the play, the sides were knotted in a scoreless draw.
On a flare to left field off the bat of Myerstown’s Conor Bawiec – with Elliott going out and Southall coming in – the two diving Annville fielders collided above the shoulders. The two were attended to for 20 minutes, before the arrival of a local ambulance. While certainly serious, the injuries were not believed to be life-threatening.
Neither player was able to return, and Annville, already down a few regulars to vacation, was forced to play the rest of the contest with two outfielders. Myerstown went on to score the only runs of the game, following the 30-minute delay.
The physical status of Elliott and Southall will be unknown when the series resumes Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. at Annville-Cleona High School. Myerstown, the now 11-5 second seed, is expected to start righthander Mike Wealand on the mound, while now 8-7-1 three seed Annville, which will need nine warm bodies to at least begin the game, will counter with Mitch Rodkey.
“You can tell kids they’ve got to call it,” said Annville head coach Steve Hostetter of the collision. “But that’s the type of kids they are. They’re hard-nosed, balls-to-the-walls kids. Truthfully, I saw most of the collision. I don’t know if anyone got a glove on it, but that’s neither here or there now.
“They’re both hard-nosed kids,” Hostetter continued. “Braeden’s quiet, but they both have a passion for the game. It’s unfortunate it had to end the way it did.”
“When kids get hurt like that it takes everything out of everybody,” said Myerstown head coach Johnny Mentzer, echoing the emotional hush that fell over the entire venue. “Those kids were just playing hard. Thank God it wasn’t worse. My thoughts and prayers are with them and I told my kids the same thing. I hate to win a baseball game when kids get hurt.
“What really affects Steve (Hostetter) is having three kids go off to the beach and not tell him,” continued Mentzer. “When kids bail on him, it puts him in a bind. It’s unfortunate. I don’t like benefiting from that, at all. But baseball is minute when it comes to the health of kids.”
With Elliott and Southall sprawled out in short left field, Bawiec legged his lead-off hit into a triple. Bawiec tallied the first run of the game when teammate Ryan Wierback followed with an RBI-grounder.
Myerstown added four insurance runs courtesy of RBIs from Chris Kreider, Jake Stager, Cody Horst and pinch-hitter Grant Fisher.
“It was right there,” said Hostetter. “Unfortunately that one play set the outcome of the game. I’m not saying we would’ve won. But we were putting guys on base and hitting the ball.
“I told the guys, ‘If we can field another player, we’ll play (Wednesday),” added Hostetter. “I don’t know. I don’t think Braeden will be able to play. I don’t know about Zach. We could have him on the field at the beginning of the game, throw one pitch and then take him out. We’ll play with eight (players). We’ll do whatever it takes to play the game. That’s the way we approach things.”
“It definitely turned the outcome around,” said Mentzer. “It takes Nappy (Annville starter Tyler Napierala) out of his groove. It definitely affects him, and it definitely affects us. I knew if we could score a run it would be hard for them to come back.”
‘The Play’ overshadowed an intriguing pitching duel between Myerstown starter Bawiec and Napierala of Annville, one which didn’t yield a run for either side through five-and-a-half frames.
In his seven innings of work and 88 pitches, Bawiec scattered six hits, struck out two and walked one. Bawiec, who has surrendered three runs in 35 innings of Lebanon County American Legion pitching this summer, retired the last eight hitters he faced, after working in and out of trouble in the earlier frames.
“It was typical Conor stuff,” said Mentzer. “He was struggling a little with his command, but he has swing-and-miss stuff. He’s good at missing the sweet part of the bat, and we played good defense tonight.
“His presence on the mound makes us better,” Mentzer continued. “We’ll have him tomorrow, and Thursday he’s gone (to honor a travel ball commitment). Hopefully we’ll continue to play the way we have when he’s gone.”
“I thought he was much more dominant up at the (Lebanon Valley) college the first time we saw him,” said Hostetter of Bawiec’s earlier 18-strikeout performance. “We put our bats on the ball. We did not strike out that much. We hit the ball. We just didn’t get the key hit at the right time.”
Napierala, a hard-chucking righthander, was nearly as effective. Prior to the sixth, Napierala had faced the minimum number of hitters in three of Myerstown’s at-bats and had allowed three hits and no walks, and fanned one.
“I was surprised he started,” said Mentzer of Napierala. “He’s a good pitcher. We hit him OK, but we finally started to square the ball up with him.”
“He threw good, for the first game he started all year,” said Hostetter of Napierala. “I would’ve liked to have used him in relief, but I thought we had to match up with them. They hit the ball, but we made the plays behind him. He wanted to finish it out. That’s the kind of kid he is.”
While neither side was willing to give an inch, it would appear that, given the circumstances, Annville is facing long odds of coming back to win the series.
“I’ve never seen a play like that at this level,” said Mentzer. “Not in the first round of the playoffs when a team only had ten players. That’s a big, big play for them (Annville) in a negative manner. It was definitely serious.
“Our approach is win one game at a time,” Mentzer continued. “In legion baseball, especially in this county, you’ve got to win one game at a time. I thought about it and finally I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to throw my best stuff and go from there.’ We set ourselves up moving forward and gave ourselves a good chance of winning again.”
“No, we don’t have any other players,” said Hostetter. “And we have to start with nine (by rule). If one of them (Southall or Elliott) is able we’re going to have them out there for one pitch, and I’m going to have to get clearances from parents and doctors. I don’t see either one of them playing tomorrow. We’ll go at it as hard as we can with what we have.
“They (his players) understand the circumstances of what happened tonight,” Hostetter concluded. “We’ll come out tomorrow with eight kids and play as hard as we can.”
Meanwhile, the opening game of the other best-of-three Lebanon County American Legion baseball semifinal series, between regular-season champion Campelltown and fourth-place finisher Fredericksburg was rained out. The contest was rescheduled for Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. at Palmyra Area High School, or possibly at In The Net sports complex.
Lebanon County American Legion Baseball
Final Regular Season Standings
W L T Pts.
xy-Campbelltown 12 3 0 36
y-Myerstown 10 5 0 30
y-Annville 8 6 1 25
y-Fredericksburg 7 7 1 22
Fifth Ward 5 10 0 15
Richland 2 13 0 6
y-clinched playoff berth