It was a moment that, if not necessarily possessing a sense of desperation, certainly had a sense of urgency.
The Twin Valley Raiders legion baseball team headed into the ninth inning of Game 14 of the Pennsylvania State Tournament with a narrow, 2-1 lead over their noble opponents, the pesky, opportunistic Region 4 champions from Spring Grove. It was as much of an “all-or-nothing” game as there could possibly be, at least at this level of play: win and you not only advance to the state championship game, but you also advance to the next level of play; lose and your season is over.
The Raiders had come a long way to reach this point, but they still had three outs to survive to reach the payoff. They had to record those three outs against a team that, in many ways, was a carbon copy of themselves: a solid, well-coached, non-flashy team who thrived on minimizing its mistakes, a team that won games more so by merely staying with its opposition and waiting for them to make the mistakes. In fact, Spring Grove had done just that to these same Raiders a few days before, winning an exciting, 3-2 game as Twin Valley committed 4 errors. It was almost as if the Raiders were looking into a mirror when looking at their opponent.
And so, heading into the ninth inning, the Raiders and their fans surely felt the need to add a few more runs to the scoreboard tally, especially given that the top of Spring Grove’s order was due to bat in the bottom of the inning.
The inning began well enough, Gabe Witmer and tournament co-batting champion Kyle Trivits drawing back-to-back walks to chase reliever Dalton Hoiles, who was the winning pitcher in the tournament’s opening game. Scrappy, hustling Nick Spangler then relieved and proceeded to strike out Brian Olsen. But at the top of the order, Jon Abbadusky beat out a bunt to load the bases.
The moment of urgency had certainly arrived in the game. Spring Grove, sensing the same, brought their infield in. Second baseman Billy Reardon ripped a shot toward left, but shortstop Brandon Warner (who had begun the game on the mound) intercepted the ball. An inning-ending double play appeared to be certain.
But destiny certainly was on the side of the Raiders in this game. Earlier in the game, reversing the trend of their previous meeting, it was Spring Grove who made the errors, and Twin Valley who capitalized on them, as the Raiders turned single errors in two different innings into single runs to take that 2-1 lead.
The Raiders and their fans thus breathed a collective sigh of relief when destiny decided to remain on their side: Reardon’s line drive somehow slipped out of Warner’s glove and fell harmlessly to the ground. To his credit, Warner recovered to throw out Witmer on the force out at home.
But everybody in the park knew that the Raiders had dodged a major bullet. For not only was the inning not over, and the bases still loaded, but arguably the best hitter in the entire tournament was now at the plate: shortstop Izzack Albright.
The game’s crowning moment was now at hand. Spangler got two quick strikes on Albright, but then, trying to nip the corners for a third strike, threw two straight balls. The momentum in this colossal plate appearance had now switched back to the dangerous Albright. It was baseball at its finest: two outstanding teams, both in this all-or-nothing game, bases loaded, two outs, ace pitcher against deadliest batter. Somebody had to flinch.
It turned out to be Spangler. Throwing what Albright later called an “inside changeup,” Spangler came inside with a pitch, and Albright deposited way over the right field fence and part way up the grassy bank. It was the only home run of the tournament – and, for that matter, only the third home run all season at Bear Stadium – but for the Raiders, it could not have come at a better time.
With a 6-1 lead, the Raiders finally had the cushion that would be enough to win the game. Starting pitcher Tyler Sternat then completed a strong, 4-hitter by retiring Spring Grove on 3 ground balls in the bottom of the inning, ironically to each of the infielders other than first base.
After the game, Albright recalled the moment. “I had two strikes on me – I was just trying to put the ball in play hard,” he recalled. “I got an inside pitch and got around on it.” Albright then explained his approach in the crucial at-bat. “I was looking for something away, ‘cause they kept it away from me all game. And it was a changeup inside. I just stayed back on it.”
Twin Valley head coach Matt Royer reflected on how the Raiders met the critical challenge of winning Game 14. “Don’t give ‘em things, make routine plays – you don’t even have to make great plays, just make routine plays – and don’t walk people,” he said.
It was a formula that worked all season for the Raiders. They may have forgotten it in the earlier loss to Spring Grove, but they remembered it just in time to survive to the next level of play.
“We had to win three more games to advance and we were able to do that, against good teams, so I was very happy with it,” Royer added.