HERSHEY >> The Hamburg Reds are still the only state champions the Pa. American Legion baseball Division 2 tournament has ever known.
The Reds made it back-to-back state titles Sunday evening at Hershey High School’s Memorial Field in dramatic fashion, with a 6-5 win over Region 5 champion Mifflinburg in eight innings on a walk-off wild pitch.
Jared Sterner raced in from third base with runners at the corners and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Mifflinburg relief pitcher Eric Zimmerman spiked a breaking ball that bounced off the shin guard of Wildcats’ catcher Josh Foster and rolled too far away to prevent the championship run from scoring.
The Reds won the inaugural Legion Division 2 tournament, a true double-elimination format, in 2017 by beating McConnellsburg at Central Columbia High School, near Bloomsburg.
Sunday’s dramatics prevented a winner-take-all ‘if” game that would have taken place back at Memorial Field on Monday night had Mifflinburg prevailed. Over the course of the tournament, Hamburg got complete-game wins from Ethan Naftzinger, Tyler Graham and Sterner, respectively, to run the table at Hershey.
“It’s a great feeling,” a choked-up Nick Evangelista, Hamburg’s manager, said. “I’m so proud of these kids; they battled today. We were up against a very good ballclub. They played really well. Obviously we didn’t want to take it to (Monday) night because anything could have happened. We were fortunate to battle and keep it together.
“To go back-to-back was definitely a goal of ours and something we had to take pitch-by-pitch, repetition-by-repetition. It’s a moment of relief because I know how bad these kids wanted to win. … We looked at this as the title game. No tomorrow, no safety net. This is it. We were gonna use all hands on deck and not think about (Monday).”
Sterner hit a one-out infield single, then raced around to third base when a shot to shortstop off the bat of Brady Adams was tossed into right field. What could have been a double play, or at least a fielder’s choice, instead gave the Reds runners at the corners. With Ethan Naftzinger at the plate, a 1-1 offering broke wide to the right of the dish and eluded Foster, allowing Sterner to race home with the winning run.
“We were gonna try a safety squeeze,” Sterner said. “Catcher tried to block it and it hit off his shin guard far enough away for me to score.”
With his club trailing 5-3 in the bottom of fifth, Hamburg’s Corey Evangelista launched a 2-run home run over the left field fence to tie the game. It was salvation of sorts for Evangelista, who had struggled out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup during Saturday’s pair of contests.
“He started me out with a curveball, I took it, he came in on me (next pitch) and I finally got my hands through quick enough,” Corey Evangelista said. “I got a pretty good piece of it. It felt good. I thought I got it. Rounding the bases, seeing my teammates waiting for me, it rejuvenated us, I thought, and helped us win the game.”
Sterner’s mad dash home will forever be imprinted onto the mind’s eye of the gathered, but his biggest contribution Sunday was from the mound. He threw a complete game on exactly 100 pitches – five short of the Legion maximum allowed – and did not let a defensive meltdown behind him, in the top of third, rattle his cage. Sterner simply went back to work, ending his own game having retired the final 13 Mifflinburg batters he faced. He surrendered six hits, but only one of the five runs given up was earned.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to move forward and get the next guy out,” Sterner said. “You just take a deep breath, try to hit your spots and don’t overthrow too much.”
Hamburg took a 3-0 lead with a three-run bottom of the second off Wildcats starter Darin Miller. Three consecutive singles loaded to bases for Tarik Feick, who lofted a fly ball to center to plate the game’s first run. Reece Adam followed two batters later with a two-run single to right field. It seemed business as usual for the Reds, who scored early runs in each of their first two games of the tournament.
But Mifflinburg came roaring back with a five-run third, courtesy of three Hamburg errors, two throwing and one catching. Reed Wagner’s two-run double for the lead, following the miscues, felt like a dagger. It was a mess of a frame that came from nowhere and left the Reds down a pair of runs headed to the middle innings.
“We pride ourselves on defense, throwing strikes, fundamentals,” Nick Evangelista said, “It was unfortunate. Two ground balls and we can’t get an out, then they get a huge hit.”
Sterner never allowed the sloppiness behind him affect his game from the bump, however, and Corey Evangelista’s bomb off Zimmerman two frames later squared the affair up and let everyone off the hook. He shook off an errant pickoff throw (as a baserunner) that hit him flush in the pitching elbow.
“Sometimes it seems like a cliché, pitchers get stronger, but he’s really done that during his outings,” the manager said.
Sterner put a bow on a moment he and the Reds won’t ever forget: “We worked so hard to get back here. Worked hard last year and won, same thing this year. It feels great to be out here and win it again with your friends.”
Hamburg 5, Line Mountain 0 >> The Reds’ opening game of the tournament on Saturday morning (Friday’s targeted opening was washed away by rain) featured a complete-game shutout from Ethan Naftzinger, who held Line Mountain to four base hits, all singles. Naftzinger and Sterner got Hamburg on the board with a pair of run-scoring singles in the top of the fourth inning; a three-run fifth salted away the verdict -- Austin Gromlich hit a two-run double and Owen Zimmerman followed up with an RBI single.
“I was just trying to throw strikes, wasn’t trying to do too much with my changeup or my curveball,” Naftzinger said. “I knew my team would put some runs on the board.”
The victory put Hamburg into the winner’s bracket final, where they would await the winner of Biglerville-Line Mountain later Saturday at Memorial Field. Biglerville prevailed, to eliminate Line Mountain.
Hamburg 12, Biglerville 2 (6 inn.) >> The Reds got it done an inning early with a mercy-rule verdict in the nightcap, which propelled them into the championship game. Hamburg grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the top of the first, establishing an aggressive running game against the Biglerville battery of pitcher Noah Ayers and catcher Kyle Gillingham by swiping four in the first two frames and seven overall.
Leading 3-0 through two, Hamburg sent eight batters to the plate in the top of the third and scored four runs to provide a 7-0 cushion for starter Tyler Graham.
Biglerville rallied for two runs in the bottom half without benefit of a base hit: Three walks, a sac fly a balk and a wild pitch.
But the Reds responded with a five-run sixth, primarily from three walks and Sterner’s resulting bases-clearing double.
Graham rallied from a pair of shaky middle innings to throw a second straight complete game and send Hamburg to the title game. He settled in and retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts to escape a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the fourth.