“Mr. High School Sports” – WPIAL Baseball Playoffs Highlights: Semifinals
By Matt Popchock
When Seneca Valley junior pitcher Matt Smith is in a groove, the onus is on your team to play mistake-free baseball. Bethel Park did not, and sure enough, its two mistakes proved to be its undoing.
The Raiders (15-3) scratched out a pair of runs off an error on a pickoff play and a fielding error for a 2-1 win over the Black Hawks (14-6) in a WPIAL Class AAAA Semifinal pitchers’ duel at North Allegheny High School Tuesday.
Bethel Park starter Logan Corrigan, who went 2-for-3 and scored the Hawks’ lone run on a two-out single by Eric Yobbi in the bottom of the first, was otherwise well supported by his defense. He limited Seneca to five hits in the complete-game loss, striking out three and walking three.
But the Raiders got that run right back in the top of the second after first baseman Austin Bream, son of infamous ex-Pirate Sid Bream, reached on a leadoff single. A pickoff throw to first nicked off Yobbi’s glove and down the right field line, allowing Bream to take two extra bases. When Christian Durbin hit a difficult one-out grounder up the middle, the Hawks managed a force-out at second, but Durbin beat the throw to first as Bream headed home to tie the game.
Seneca took the lead for good in the third inning when Sam Fragale doubled to left field with one out and Kyle Gorniak’s single put him at third. Jack Graham reached on a ground ball that was bobbled by fellow second baseman Kyle Barton, and Fragale came in to score.
That set the table for a masterful complete game performance by Smith. After Yobbi’s RBI, Smith retired 15 Hawks in a row, including five consecutive strikeouts. He fanned eight Bethel Park hitters Tuesday without giving up a walk, including the final out against Anthony Cinello, on just 80 pitches.
In addition, Smith recorded 15 outs on three pitches or less, and worked the batter into an 0-2 count on eight separate occasions.
“I just put the ball over the plate,” Smith said. “I thought I had good command of my fastball, good command of my curve ball, good command of my change-up, and that way I was able to place the ball where I wanted and make the hitters miss.”
“As soon as the playoffs started, I knew we had to win, and I knew I had to be at my best,” he added. “That’s been my mentality.”
“He was very difficult to hit [today],” manager Eric Semega said. “His curve ball was very effective, and his fastball made it even that much better. He did a terrific job throwing strikes.”
Now the Raiders are perhaps just one more Smith masterpiece away from their first WPIAL baseball title since 1994.
“We talked a lot about fear of failure at the beginning of the year. They’re dealing with it, and they’re maturing a bit better,” Semega said. “They’re a confident bunch. To see them come together…it’s fun to be around.”
Later than evening, veteran manager Joe Maize was also having fun watching his Peters Township Indians (19-1) join the Raiders in the WPIAL Class AAAA Final at CONSOL Energy Park in Washington next Tuesday at 8:00.
Down 3-1 to No. 4 seed Butler, Peters trimmed the deficit to one, then, while batting around in the top of the sixth, scored four times and hung on for a 6-4 victory over the Golden Tornado (14-5) in the nightcap at North Allegheny High School.
The Indians had managed just one hit off Butler starter Tyler Slepski through four innings, but third baseman Chris Olivio, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of crucial runs, led off the fifth by ripping a line-drive double to left field, his fifth extra-base hit of the season, and narrowly sliding in ahead of the tag. Olivio would take third on a fielder’s choice and score on Brady Sheetz’s single up the middle, his team-leading 37th RBI.
“The whole game their pitcher was doing a good job keeping us off-balance, and we weren’t connecting the way we normally do. I got a first-pitch fastball, and I decided to try and take advantage,” Olivio said of his double, which seemed to sway momentum. “I got a little of it on the handle, but I got enough of it down the line, and luckily I was able to leg it out.”
The sixth began in foreboding fashion with Slepski hitting Austin Hancock on his first pitch, and got a little stranger when catcher Will McClure got plunked with a 2-0 pitch in the very next at-bat. Olivio’s one-out single plated Hancock and tied the game.
Slepski would eventually leave the bases loaded for shortstop Cody Herald, who went on to pitch 1 2/3 innings of relief. Andrew Erenberg, who entered the night hitting .475 out of the leadoff spot, singled quickly off Herald to give Peters Township a 5-3 lead, with Olivio providing the eventual game-winning run.
“Coach Maize told me to either get on base, or knock ’em all in,” Erenberg later said with a smile. “He threw me a curve ball, so I just sat back and hit it right back up the middle. It worked out.
“We didn’t hit as well as we wanted to, but we saw a good pitcher today, and I think we pulled together really well as a team.”
Justin Bianco’s RBI rounded out the scoring for Peters on an infield single that was smashed at new shortstop Colin Williamson.
Herald fared a bit better offensively, going 2-for-4 with a run and and RBI single in the bottom of the seventh that kept Butler alive. But with runners on first and second and the potential winning run at the plate, starting pitcher Ryan Minteer, who struck out seven and walked just one, got cleanup hitter Bobby Swartwout to whiff on a high 0-2 fastball.
Now, thanks to another team effort from the preseason No. 1 team in Quad-A, the Indians can play for their third district championship in five years.
“I’m just tickled to death,” Maize said of the Indians’ advancement. “I told the guys before the game I was maybe a little more tense for this one than usual, and I think it was because I wanted it so bad for them. Plus, we qualified for the state playoffs, which is just as important [as reaching the WPIAL Final].
“When we got that number one ranking at the beginning of the year, I said to our guys, to be blunt, that they could wipe their butt with that ranking. You have to earn that on the field…and they deserve this trip to Washington next week.”
So the Class AAAA Final is set, as are the other three. In case you missed it, here’s how the rest of Wednesday’s Semifinal games turned out:
*In Class AAA, there was no letdown for top seed Elizabeth Forward, which pounded No. 5 seed Chartiers Valley 16-6…not at the end of the day, anyway. The Warriors actually fell into an early 6-1 hole and, amazingly, still managed to induce the PIAA mercy rule by scoring 15 runs over the fourth and fifth innings. Ryan Meier belted a game-clinching RBI double and struck out nine Colts in relief after the rocky start.
Meanwhile, Hopewell’s title defense ended in a heartbreaker against No. 2 seed Hampton. The Talbots trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, but a two-out single by Cory Callan with two in scoring position gave them a 3-2 walk-off win in the other Class AAA Semifinal, also played at the Burkett Athletic Complex in Robinson Township.
*In Class AA, No. 5 seed Riverside got its bats going early, and the Panthers rallied late to defeat No. 9 seed Mohawk 7-6 at Neshannock High School. This was their third victory over the section rival Warriors, who had finished with an identical 10-4 section mark to tie for a playoff spot. Tyler Falk led the Riverside attack by going 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI.
In the other Semifinal, No. 3 seed Waynesburg nipped No. 2 seed Laurel 4-3 at the Burkett Complex, giving the Raiders a shot at their first title since 1999. Alex Swauger was the difference-maker for Waynesburg, going 3-for-3 with three RBI.
*But perhaps the biggest head-turner of them all took place at Washington & Jefferson College, as the major upset we thought we would see a couple nights ago did come to fruition after all. Class A No. 5 seed Chartiers-Houston stunned two-time WPIAL champion Serra Catholic 9-3 for the right to play for its first-ever District 7 baseball crown next week. Winning pitcher Dylan Pounds went the distance while delivering four hits, including a pair of triples, and three RBI. The Buccaneers scored four times in the bottom of the sixth to salt this one away.
Their opponent in the WPIAL Class A Final will be No. 2 seed Neshannock. The Lancers held down the heavy-hitting offense of No. 3 seed California, though the Trojans made them sweat out their 6-5 victory at W & J. Despite giving up four runs over the final two frames, starting pitcher Alex Strittmatter scattered five hits to pick up the win and give Neshannock a shot at its first championship in baseball since 2004.
Here is the rest of the championship schedule for next week:
Class AAA: Elizabeth Forward vs. Hampton – Wed., June 1, 8:00 PM
Class AA: Riverside vs. Waynesburg – Wed., June 1, 5:30 PM
Class A: Neshannock vs. Chartiers-Houston – Tue., May 31, 5:30 PM
Be sure to check back with the Mr. High School Sports blog soon for a special preview of the WPIAL Baseball Championships. In the meantime, be sure to read the blog Friday morning for a look back at the Quarterfinal and Semifinal Rounds of the WPIAL Softball Playoffs.