Boyertown American Legion Bears earn a clutch victory over Norchester

Boyertown's Luke Stong slides into home plate to score a run on a hit by Zach Moser in the bottom of the third inning against West Lawn during their Berks County League Legion playoff game Wednesday. (John Strickler/The Mercury)
Boyertown pitcher Brandon Griesemer delivers to the plate against West Lawn during a Berks County League Legion playoff game Wednesday at Bear Stadium. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

With each passing year, the beauty and fascination of the standard, double-elimination playoff format used at most levels in American Legion baseball tournaments continues to grow on me. The manner in which the various “starting brackets” are interconnected to form the resulting winner’s bracket and loser’s bracket, and indeed, the way that these two brackets interact as the tournament progresses, is a fascinating intellectual exercise to me.

In particular, Day 4 in this format is the most interesting day in the tournament. There are two games on this day, with half of the original field of eight teams having been eliminated, and the objective of these two games from a scheduling perspective is to avoid having repeat match-ups ,if at all possible. It’s a little-known fact that the match-ups for Day 4 are already determined on Day 3 before the final game of that day (the all-important winner’s bracket finale) is even started.

Perhaps the most intriguing game of Day 4 is Game 13. This game is often called the “Throwaway Game,” since one of the teams in the game is undefeated (having won the previously mentioned winner’s bracket finale) and thus does not “need” to win this game, whereas their opponent most certainly does need to win the game. This reality results in interesting strategies on the parts of the participating coaches, such as which pitchers to use.

All of which brings us to the 2014 Berks County playoffs, and in particular, the “Throwaway Game” of this tournament. It was game that featured the Bears and the team that very well could be called their new arch-rivals, the Norchester Bulldogs. It was a game that had many story lines to it, such as the fact that the Bulldogs had swept the three-game season-series with the Bears, including a quite embarrassing doubleheader sweep back on June 24. It was a game that the Bulldogs did not need to win – and in some ways the Bears did not need to win, since they will be hosting the state tournament.

And it was a classic game, a game very reminiscent of last season’s epic game versus Downingtown on Day 2 of the 2013 state tournament.

The Bears, not having to battle against either of Norchester’s two ace pitchers (i.e., Sean Esch, starter in last season’s Downingtown game, or Steve Muscovitch), jumped out to a quick, 1-0 lead at the start of the game thanks to an old favorite strategy, the delayed double steal. Three unearned runs in the bottom of the third gave the Bulldogs the lead, but the Bears got them back in the fourth, although two base running blunders probably cost the Bears additional potential runs.

After each team traded a run in the fifth inning, disaster struck the Bears, as the Bulldogs scored three times to take the lead. The key play was a controversial one in which an overthrow at the plate was allowed to bound about amongst Norchester players who had wandered out from the dugout onto the field of play. The resulting argument resulted in the ejection of a Boyertown coach.

But the Bears rebounded to tie the game with two runs in the top of the seventh inning, although again, a base running blunder may have cost the Bears additional runs. Brandon Griesemer, en route to a 4-for-5 day, drove home both runs with a single.

For Griesemer, the two-run single was a key moment. He had entered the game to pitch right at the controversial play at the plate, then surrendered the go-ahead, RBI single to the next batter. But rather than give up, he delivered the game-tying single. Just as importantly, he proceeded to hurl 5 2/3 innings of one-hit pitching in relief of rookie Andrew Bauer.

Gallantly, the two teams battled into extra innings, with the threat of nasty summer thunderstorms adding to the drama. Finally, in the eleventh inning, the Bears rallied to push across the game-winning runs. Dalton Hughes led off the inning with his fourth hit, then stole second as Griesemer drew a walk. After Quinn Hair advanced the runners with a bunt, Tyler “Waldo” Comport followed with a lined single down the right field line that was fair by a matter of feet. He eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Luke Stong to give the Bears a 10-7 lead.

With rain already starting to change the shade of the infield dirt, Griesemer retired the Bulldogs in the bottom of the frame to earn the win, not long before the predicted thunderstorms struck the area.

The win did not clinch the tournament championship for the Bears, nor did it eliminate the Bulldogs, who still are in the driver’s seat, having clinched a berth in the championship game with Saturday’s winner’s bracket finale shutout win over Exeter. But it was a moral victory for the Bears. Not only did they finally defeat the Bulldogs, but they did so in a thrilling, dramatic game that was played in what was definitely a playoff atmosphere. Those sentiments were reflected in the comments of both head coaches after the game.

“It was probably the most inspired we played all year,” commented Boyertown’s Rick Moatz. “We played with a lot of emotion and energy . . . so we’re living to play another day.”

Meanwhile, Norchester’s Rick Harrison commented “It was pretty intense for what you’d consider a ‘throwaway game’ … it was a good quality game, pretty intense atmosphere.”

Perhaps the best way to summarize the game, though, was uttered in the coach’s quarters after the three hour, 11 minute marathon was completed. There, the comment was made that the game was the most exciting throw away game in any Boyertown tournament.

CHALK DUST: The Bears’ path to the county championship is simple: defeat West Lawn in Game 14, then defeat Norchester in Game 15 . . . An interesting oddity occurred in Game 12. In the ninth inning of that game, all three of Exeter’s outfielders had the first name “Jake” . . . The Bears open their play in the state tournament on Tuesday, July 29, versus the Region 4 champions. They then play either the Region 8 champions or the Region 6 champions.