NEW CASTLE —
Walks can be a killer in the playoffs.
Yesterday, they dealt a deadly blow to the Neshannock High baseball team.
Lancers pitcher Alex Welker issued seven free passes and four of them came around to score as Elk County Catholic held on for a 4-3 PIAA Class A quarterfinal-round win over Neshannock at White Township Park.
Welker was coming off two sparkling performances in the WPIAL playoffs, earning the win in both games. He pitched 11 total innings in the district playoffs with six walks and 12 strikeouts.
“It’s just tough. We always talk about walks and things,” Neshannock coach Mike Kirkwood said. “He threw two great outings before, and we were hoping for another great outing from him, but it was tough.
“He just didn’t have it and the strike zone fluctuated a little bit both ways. Sometimes you throw a pitch that you think is a strike and it’s not, and there’s nothing you can do.”
Welker (5-2) pitched just 3 1/3 innings, giving up four hits and four runs — three earned — with seven walks and three strikeouts.
“Their pitcher was struggling there, even in early in the game,” Crusaders coach Tom Zampogna said. “I don’t know if he was tired or not. But he was throwing more balls than strikes.
“We were very selective at the plate and it worked in our favor.”
END OF THE LINE
Neshannock’s loss halts a 20-game winning streak and ends a bid at a state title. The Lancers (22-3), in their final season in Class A before climbing to double-A, entered the state playoffs as the two-time defending WPIAL champions.
“I feel sorry for the seniors and the kids that are done,” Kirkwood said. “Sometimes you get one opportunity with a group of kids.
“On paper, based on what we’ve seen and stuff, you’d think we were the better team, but things happen in baseball. We won 20 straight games, you’re bound to do something wrong or have something happen. We just didn’t get it done.”
Elk County Catholic (18-6) advances to meet Bishop McCort in the semifinals on Monday at a time and site to be determined. Bishop McCort (22-2) moved on with a 9-8 win over Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
WORKING OUT OF TROUBLE
Lancers pitchers stranded eight Crusaders runners on base and worked out of jams in nearly every inning.
“We sure had our chances,” Zampogna said. “The down side was we left a lot of runners on base. But we got enough across the plate to win the game.”
The Crusaders’ Pat Brennen led off the bottom of the first with a walk and took second on a a sacrifice bunt. The batter beat the throw to first to put Welker in an immediate bind. Dan Singer singled in Brennen for a 1-0 Elk County Catholic lead.
“That feeds into what they want to do,” Kirkwood said. “They want to keep it close and tend to play small ball. We knew when the first guy got on with a walk, they were going to bunt the second guy.
“We just didn’t execute what we went over and what we talked about. They ended up getting first and second without hitting the ball.”
Welker got Ivan Wortman to fly out and Crusaders pitcher Jack Herzing bounced into an inning-ending double play. The Lancers’ John Sansone, a Florida State University recruit who was drafted in the 39th round by the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, started the twin killing.
“It’s always beneficial to get the lead early,” Zampogna said. “That’s been the signature of this team. We seem to always get a run early, but then we struggle at the back end. Defensively, we tend to hold on.”
Welker knotted the count in the second when he doubled to the gap in left center with two outs. The inning was shut down when he was thrown out at third trying to stretch it into a triple.
“Any time the ball is in front of you, it’s on you. He just thought he could make it,” Kirkwood said. “He hustled all the way.”
Consecutive walks to open the third got a rally going for the Crusaders. Welker came right back, though, and struck out the next two hitters.
Brennen notched an RBI single for a 2-1 lead. After another walk loaded the bases, Singer hit a slow roller to second baseman John Conglose. But Conglose didn’t come up with the ball cleanly and Singer reached safely, scoring Ben Cortina for a 3-1 buffer.
Matt Cioffi plated Ernie Burkes in the top of the third on a sacrifice fly. Burkes coaxed a one-out walk and stole second and third.
The Crusaders picked up their fourth run in the fourth frame on a bases-loaded walk to Singer, chasing Welker with one out.
Reliever Mike Ross entered with the bases loaded. He promptly retired the first two batters he faced to keep it a 4-2 contest.
Ross tossed 2 2/3 innings, allowing a hit and no runs with no walks and three strikeouts.
“He did a phenomenal job in relief,” Kirkwood said.
Neshannock chipped away in the sixth, adding a marker on a run-scoring single by Conglose for a 4-3 deficit. The Lancers had Burkes at second with two outs in the seventh after he walked and stole second. Alex Strittmatter fouled two consecutive pitches off that Elk County Catholic catcher Vincent Jacob couldn’t hang on to on a 2-2 count. The third time, Jacob didn’t miss on the foul tip, ending the Lancers’ season.
Neshannock managed just two hits in the PIAA opening-round win over Bishop Guilfoyle (2-0) and three more yesterday — Welker’s double, along with singles by Cioffi and Conglose.
Sansone was held hitless in three at-bats and finished the state playoffs 0 for 5 plus a walk.
“He’s handled the pressure tremendously throughout the year; he’s a tremendous player and a great person. It’s great to be able to say I coached him,” Kirkwood said of Sansone. “Monday of course, Jextin Pugh pitches like that against a lot of teams. But it’s not for a lack of trying, a lack of work or lack of doing what we do.”
Herzing (6-3) went the distance for the Crusaders, giving up three earned runs with two walks and seven strikeouts.
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