SPRINGFIELD >> Springfield baseball coach Brian Francis appreciates the creativity shown by his players when he asks them to find a way to win.
The dramatic endings, however, are aging him.
For the third straight District 1 Class 5A playoff game, the Cougars dug themselves a big hole. For the third straight time, they bounced back to prevail, this time in a 7-6 win over Upper Merion Friday.
“It’s fun,” Francis said. “But they’re giving me gray hair, that’s for sure.”
Layne Kelly drove in four runs with two clutch hits, and Michael Conran, pitching for the first time in five weeks, came off the bench to do the rest as the Cougars earned a spot opposite Marple Newtown in the district final next Tuesday at Immaculata.
“The slow starts, a lot of times we’re doing it to ourselves, but today those guys came and hit,” Francis said. “They timed the fastball. They get the credit for hitting there. But the last two games we kind of kicked it around a little and walked guys.
“I don’t know why we keep doing it but I know this — our kids don’t quit. They just don’t quit.”
Kelly, who bats second, went 3-for-4 with a double and a run scored for the Cougars, who wasted no time giving the opposition the lead.
Springfield starting pitcher Dave Strawley threw hard but the No. 16 seed Vikings (12-12), who now play for state tournament seeding, teed off on him. Ray Scheier led off with a lined single, and two batters later, Vikings starting pitcher Ryan McAteer ripped a two-run double.
The fifth-seeded Cougars (15-4) blew a chance to answer as they failed to score despite loading the bases with one out.
Strawley didn’t make it out of the second inning as he surrendered a two-run double to Matt Choi that rolled to the left field fence and an RBI double to Jake McGrath, almost to the same spot.
To shake up the Cougars, Francis brought in Conran, who saw his first action since injuring the rotator cuff and the AC joint in his throwing shoulder.
“It was like hockey,” Francis said. “You put a new goalie in and sometimes it changes the momentum. Michael came and he was great, he changed the momentum. He’s been hurt. He hasn’t pitched much. And he was well above what we expected. We thought three or four innings maybe. And he was well above what we expected. He came in and was great and we hit the ball hard.”
There are no easy outs for pitchers trailing by five runs in district playoff games. Conran tightened up his hat and with McGrath on second, made McAteer the first of seven strikeout victims.
It’s safe to say that was the biggest out in the still young career of the junior Conran.
“Another single there and it’s 6-0 and we’ve got to come back even further,” Conran said. “I just knew I had to go in there and throw strikes. I knew my fielders would back me up. I just tried to keep the ball low and throw hard because they we hitting all high pitches.”
The Cougars didn’t break up the shutout until the third inning. Leadoff batter Mike Smith reached on an error, stole second and came home on another of the Vikings’ four errors.
Conran got stronger as he began a stretch where he retired 10 of 11 batters.
It finally came together for the Cougars in the fourth inning when they stopped swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and scored four runs, a pair on a single by Kelly and two more on a double by Andrew Todaro, who drove in two and scored the game-winning run in the quarterfinal triumph over Strath Haven on Wednesday. That knotted the game at 5.
Conran, who allowed just three hits and one earned run in 5.1 innings, struck out the side in the fifth.
In the bottom of the inning the Cougars leaned on Kelly, one of their toughest outs, to give them the lead for good on a two-run single.
“We needed to come back one run at a time,” Kelly said. “Each inning, let’s just get one. Just don’t give up. We’ve been playing together since we were young and we just don’t give up.”
Francis expected nothing less from Kelly, who the Cougars look to along with Smith to get going.
“He’s scrappy, he’s a ballplayer who could have played years ago,” Francis said. “He gives us energy. He’s been great with the glove. He gets us started. And Michael Smith’s been getting us started. He’s been hitting the ball well and getting on base.”
All that was left was for Conran to put the Vikings down in the seventh inning. That wasn’t easy as Jonathan Eyer drilled an RBI single to produce the final score.
“Their bats came to life and we couldn’t stem the bleeding when we needed to,” Vikings coach Matt Mitchell said. “They put some pressure on us. We’ll definitely be hurting for a while. But I am happy with our kids battling back and making it a tough win for them. We didn’t fold the tents.
“We’ve got a seeding game Tuesday and go on to the states from there. It’s the first time we’ve been to states for awhile, it’s an exciting time. We’re not done yet.”