EAST WHITELAND >> The Radnor baseball banquet started without the team Thursday night.
Crazy as that sounds, you need to hear their excuse.
The Raiders had barely completed an epic 11-9 upset of defending District One Class AAA champion Holy Ghost Prep at Great Valley High, the game ending just eight minutes before the banquet began.
The storybook script took 3 hours, 19 minutes and matched Raiders pitcher Andrew Austen, who plays without part of an arm, with Ghost’s Nolan Jones, the coveted infielder-pitcher an army of Major League Baseball scouts checked in on because one of their employers is going to draft him in the first round. All you needed was Danny Glover waving his arms to wake up those Angels In the Outfield.
“We are a Disney-ish team,” Raiders coach Mark Jordan said. “The teams that play us are like, ‘how the heck did they beat us?’ And here we are in the finals. We’ve never been in the district finals before. This is the first time. It’s uncharted ground for us.”
The Raiders (12-10) played like they enjoyed every pitch, every swing, every playful “DNP” taunt from the dugout of Jones, who they thought would begin the game on the mound but instead pitched in relief.
Peyton Birch took the ball first for the top-seeded Firebirds (14-6), and after giving up two runs in the first inning, had a 3-2 lead entering the third.
That’s when the Raiders went to work, massing walks and aggressive base running until catcher Pat Scheri looped a two-run single into left, keying a four-run burst and a 6-3 lead.
Meanwhile Austen was pitching Jones carefully, walking him three times but nearly picking him off twice. The left-handed Austen was too quick for the first base ump on one play. On another occasion the first baseman didn’t hold on after making the tag.
Austen didn’t have his best stuff, having pitched two innings in relief to seal a playoff win over Chichester Tuesday. But the lefty Austen found a way to throw 135 pitches in 6.1 innings and put his opponent on the mat. No pitch was bigger than the high heater he threw to strike out Philip Stahl for the third out with runners on second and third and the Raiders protecting an 8-4 lead in the fourth inning.
“It’s huge,” said Austen, who exited with an 11-5 lead. “This is the first time ever I think we’ve won two playoff games. I’ve been a part of this team for four years and we’ve always won one and lost that second game. So winning this game, especially against these guys with all the hype and the MLB scouts is definitely the biggest win I’ve ever been a part of.”
Scheri, who has played ball with Austen since they were 10, had a pretty good idea how his bud was feeling.
“It’s awesome, the biggest game we’ve played all year,” Scheri said. “It’s the biggest game I’ve played with Andrew. It was a lot of fun being a part of it. Every pitch, I could feel my heart stopping. It’s awesome to be a part of it and get the win and keep going.”
When Austen took a seat in the seventh, the Raiders looked like compliant passengers, not the guys who whipped out their cell phones with GPS to convince the bus driver he missed the exit on the way to the field. Just say the Raiders didn’t have a lot of time to take grounders, much less batting practice after doubling back.
The Firebirds scored four runs in the seventh, reliever Evan Moore roughed up for two runs and three hits without getting an out.
Jones rocketed one of the pitches over the right-field fence for a three-run homer that had first round written all over it, although he says he hasn’t decided whether to play professionally or go to the University of Virginia.
Jordan is glad the Raiders don’t have to face Jones again.
“I thought it was 11-10,” Jordan said, breaking into a smile. “I thought it was a one-run game. That’s how dumb I am.
“He’s a great player. We pitched around him a little bit. We walked him three times. It was sort of intentional. And he’s good on the mound. He throws the ball very hard. But we got on him a bit and got in his head.”
When Julian Turner followed with an infield single for Holy Ghost, Jordan asked Pat Lofton to get a save.
Jones, in his last game for HGP, was in the dugout trying to will the Firebirds to victory.
“It just didn’t end the way we wanted it,” said Jones, who in four innings of relief allowed four hits and five runs. “But we had a great year. And to fight back at the end really says a lot about us, especially the guys coming back next year.”
One groundout later, the Raiders were celebrating their good fortune … and asking each other what time it was because, you know, they had to go to their banquet.
For Austen, the guy teammates call “mechanical advantage,” “Hollywood,” “superstar” and “newspaper,” among other printable nicknames, it’s unquestionably a career highlight. And he’d like more, thank you.
“They’re having fun when they say that,” Austen said. “They have my back. We’re all friends. We started off really poor, losing our first five games. But when we came together, well, everyone can see what we do now.”
Even the scouts saw it, at least for one night.