By Matt Popchock
California pitcher and Cal U. football recruit T.D. Conway was the talk of his town after fighting the flu while fanning 14 hitters in an extra-inning semifinal win. On Wednesday night, however, it was another savvy senior who looked sick.
One year after strong-arming Neshannock to a championship, Alex Strittmatter gave the Lancers (21-2) a second straight WPIAL title with a 5-0 win over previously unbeaten California (19-1) in the Class A Baseball Final at CONSOL Energy Park in Washington.
If Strittmatter was sick—sick of hearing about Conway’s heroics, that is—it showed, as he maintained control despite a longer layoff than the one the rest of his teammates enjoyed. The senior, fresh off a one-game suspension for an unsportsmanlike base-running maneuver in the quarterfinals, registered his ninth win by scattering five hits, striking out ten, and walking just two.
The Trojans, at one point this season, had scored double-digit runs in 12 straight games.
This is the fifth baseball crown in program history for Neshannock, which joined 2009-10 Serra Catholic as the only other repeat champion in WPIAL Class A since its formation in 1999. Strittmatter has posted 17 total strikeouts and allowed seven total hits and one run in both victories.
Conway, who leads the WPIAL with 13 wins and finished second overall in regular-season strikeouts, was finally beaten after allowing four earned runs and ten hits amidst ten strikeouts and three walks. On a positive note, he has now posted 40 K’s in three complete postseason games.
Two of those free passes were issued intentionally to Neshannock shortstop and Florida State recruit John Sansone, who scored twice and led off the bottom of the fifth with a first-pitch triple to deep center field.
The WPIAL regular season batting champ has at least one extra-base hit in each playoff game, and he gave the Lancers a 2-0 edge when Ryan Giangiuli singled him in on the very next offering from Conway.
But the only run Neshannock actually needed was an erroneous one. In its half of the fourth inning, Anthony Van Eman’s fly ball bounced luckily between right fielder Matt Bakewell and second baseman Eric Rucci. After two Conway strikeouts David Burkes hit a low line drive that skipped off the glove of a diving Bakewell, and Strittmater reached on a throwing error by third baseman Ron Baron that scored Van Eman.
Unfortunately for California, the proverbial disease was not contagious. Strittmatter induced an easy ground out to leave the bases loaded in the top of the fourth, and Bakewell, who went 2-for-3, was caught stealing in the fifth to end not only the inning, but the final semblance of a threat posed by the Trojans.
A two-run double by John Conglose, followed by game-ending, back-to-back strikeouts by Strittmatter, gave the Lancers more gold, along with a Monday matchup against District 6 silver medalist Bishop Guilfoyle to begin the PIAA tournament.
California opens the state playoffs that same day against District 6 champion Bishop McCort.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)