JENKINTOWN>> Faith Christian baseball coaches and players don’t know exactly how long it’s been since the team last won a playoff game, but they know it’s been a while.
Wednesday, the third-seeded Lions ended that drought, beating No. 2 Jenkintown 4-3 in the District 1-A semifinals to clinch their spot in next week’s championship game.
“We think it’s been about a decade since our last playoff win so this was great,” said Faith Christian head coach Ed Curry. “This was such a turnaround year for this program. Our slogan is ‘new era’ and to go from 5-12 last year to 11-9 this year and win the first playoff game in such a long time, there’s no bigger moment.’’
The scoring started early for the Lions. After a throwing error allowed DJ Cesario to reach on a dropped third strike, Josiah Smith hit a towering double to left to get him home and give his team the early 1-0 lead.
From there, neither of the teams’ offenses could really get much of anything going, thanks in large part to stellar performances by both starting pitchers.
Faith starter Carter Heller is just a sophomore, but he played like a veteran in his first postseason appearance. He gave up three runs over 5 1/3 innings and had a shutout working up until the sixth.
He wasn’t missing many bats, but he was hitting his spots and allowing his team to play strong defense behind him.
“My arm actually felt a little tight when I was out there on the mound,’’ said Heller. “It started to loosen up as we went on but I just let the ball get in play today. I didn’t have a lot of strikeouts but I wanted to get ground balls and let the team back me up.’’
His counterpart, Jenkintown’s John Contoudis, also pitched great. Unfortunately for him, some shaky defense by his fielders allowed unearned runs to cross the plate.
That was the difference.
Contoudis pitched seven strong innings, giving up just three hits and striking out nine, but the five errors behind him would be their undoing.
“Offensively we battled at the plate but defensively we hurt ourselves,’’ said Jenkintown head coach George Vafiadis. “We fought all afternoon but it wasn’t enough, hats off to them.’’
The game stayed 1-0 until the top of the sixth, when Faith put up three more runs, two of which came off the bat of Heller on a double to deep left.
“I was looking fastball because he (Contoudis) was working up with his fastball,’’ said Heller. “It came in a little low and I attacked it because I knew I had to be on the fastball since he has such a sick curveball. After that it just carried, I thought it was going to get out but I’m just happy I could bring home those runs.’’
Some teams would have packed it in down four with just two innings left to try and battle back, but Jenkintown seemed to fight harder.
They answered with three runs of their own in the sixth and managed to get the tying and winning runs into scoring position in the seventh.
With two outs and two men on, cleanup hitter Mike DiValentino hit a shot to the second baseman that looked destined to fall and give the Drakes the win.
That’s when Heller, who had been moved to second base following his stint on the mound, made yet another great play. He dove to his right to knock the ball down, kept it in front of him, and calmly delivered the throw to first to clinch the Lions’ first playoff win in what seemed like forever.
“It was quick, I had no time to really think about what I was doing,’ said Heller of the final out. “I just kind of threw it to first to get the out but was disappointed I didn’t make the catch. I thought a run came across, then I turned around and all my teammates were running out and It clicked what had just happened.’
While Faith prepares for next week’s championship game, Jenkintown will be forced to wonder what could have been.
They finished the regular season 14-2 and expected a much deeper playoff run than what they ended up having. Eventually, the Drakes will be able to look past the loss and see the season as a success and be proud of how they battled back to almost get the come from behind win.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of, this (Faith Christian) team is a good team that we only beat by one both times we played them,’’ said Vafiadis. “Did we want a deeper run in the playoffs? Absolutely. Do we think we have a chance against anybody? Absolutely, but we’re not moving on. We played hard today, we just got beat.’’
Faith Christian 4, Jenkintown 3
Faith Christian 100 003 0 – 4 3 1
Jenkintown 000 003 0 – 3 7 5
WP: Carter Heller (5.1IP, 3R, 3ER, 6H, 1K, 1BB, 1HBP).
LP: John Contoudis (7IP, 4R, 1ER, 3H, 9K, 1BB, 0HBP).
2B: Josiah Smith (FC), Carter Heller (FC).