LAURELDALE >> By the time he reached his triple-figure pitch limit Thursday, Mike Smith already had made a full day’s contribution to another special moment in what has become a special Springfield High baseball season.
He never figured he’d make one more almost an hour later … and what seemed like longer, considering the accumulation of single-elimination postseason tension.
“It really did,” Smith said. “It was just one of those games where it was physically and mentally tiring, especially after you pitched. But I just had to stay focused on every pitch.”
So committed, the Cougars’ starting pitcher would focus strongly on the last pitch of the game, grounding the 0-2 delivery into right field to score Brandon DiChiacchio in the 10th for a 1-0, walk-off PIAA Class 5A victory over Cedar Cliff.
Playing the final four innings in left after striking out eight in the first six, Smith helped push the Cougars (19-7) into the state semifinals Monday at a neutral site against 22-2 Latrobe. The hit was just Springfield’s fifth and only the second that could squeeze through the infield. Poetically, though, it sealed an odd winning rally.
With one out, Tom Quinn beat out an infield hit toward third, but was picked off. DiChiacchio followed with a two-out single but appeared to have been stranded when Dave Bingaman seemed to tap to Colts relief pitcher Trey Law. But Cedar Cliff catcher Donovan Ball, whose mitt just swiped Bingaman’s bat, was called for catchers’ interference, extending the rally. After Greg Tamaccio was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Smith delivered to make a much-deserving winner of reliever Jared Morris, who’d started the game as a designated hitter.
“I knew the pitching staff behind us has been holding it down the whole year,” said Smith, whose removal was necessary under the pitch-count rules. “And Jared threw one heck of a game. He’s been throwing great all year. So I really wasn’t worried. I knew our pitching would shut them out.”
There was, though, one striking source of concern for the Cougars: Cedar Cliff starter Denny Snyder. Changing pitches, speeds and even delivery styles, the poised right-hander fanned 11 in eight innings, walking two and allowing just two hits, both of the infield variety. He was lifted after eight innings and 99 pitches. Law, too, was effective before hitting that 10th-inning spray of misfortune.
The Cougars nearly solved Snyder in the bottom of the seventh when Andrew Paulus worked a one-out walk and courtesy runner Joe Kennedy stole second and third. But after Morris walked, Quinn was nipped at first by third baseman Maddux Ryan in a call too close to dispute but reasonable to holler about from the dugout and stands.
The only other Springfield opportunity came in the third when Bingaman survived on a one-out fielder’s choice, stole second and took third on a passed ball. Snyder, though, struck out the next two.
“He was incredible,” Morris said. “He was as good as we’ve seen all year. He has an amazing three pitches and he could put them wherever he wanted. He was definitely hard to hit. He pitched an incredible game.”
Morris did preserve the combined shutout with four strong innings, striking out two and ending the Colts’ 17-9 season.
As dominating as Snyder and Smith were, Morris’ mound contribution was equally impressive. He worked out of a seventh-inning fix after Ryan rushed to third on a pick-off attempt gone bad, responding with a strikeout and a ground ball to second.
Earlier, the left-handed Smith avoided trouble walking two and loading the bases in the third before coaxing a one-hopper back to the mound.
“I’m speechless,” exhaled Springfield coach Brian Francis. “You can’t say anything. Both teams deserved to win. There was great defense, great pitching. The pitching was better than the hitting today. And we just happened to have one hit at the right time. That’s all it came down to.”
Morris was at his best in snuffing a seventh-inning Cedar Cliff rally that began with a two-out infield hit from Chris Dare, who was 3-for-4. Grant Brenemen followed with his third hit, a smash to left-center that one-hopped over the fence for a double. Under the ground rules, Dare, who would have scored, was made to return to third. The inning ended when Morris coaxed a grounder to second.
Smith finished with 102 pitches, 65 for strikes. Morris threw 38 of his 50 pitches for strikes. With no game for four days, the Cougars will have all their pitchers available for the semifinals against Latrobe, which defeated West Allegheny, 9-4, Thursday. Francis, however, said he had not yet decided on a starting pitcher.
“We have plenty of arms,” he said.
The Cougars flashed two Thursday, and that was plenty … stressful as it was through nine-plus scoreless innings.
“It all worked out,” Mike Smith said, “in the end.”
An end, which it turned out, was long, long in arriving.