NETHER PROVIDENCE >> It figured that a defensive play would change the momentum in a District 1 baseball playoff game featuring 15 runs and 20 hits.
And so it was for Rustin, which capitalized on a gem by right fielder Nick Maiorano Wednesday to register a 10-5 win over Strath Haven in the quarterfinal round of the Class 5A playoffs.
The visiting Golden Knights (11-10) grabbed a 5-2 lead in their half of the fifth inning on RBI singles by Maiorano, Pat McDonough and Jake Gessler. That completed a comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the first frame.
The Panthers (15-5) answered in the bottom of the inning with Luke Mutz and Justin Malley drawing walks and Brady Mutz — Luke’s cousin — rapping a two-out single to right field.
Panthers coach Brian Fili waved Mutz around third on the single, only to see Maiorano throw a laser to catcher Sean Hopkins, who tagged Luke Mutz out. The ball reached home on the fly.
“If it was the last inning, obviously being down three, you don’t send him there,” Fili said. “Being in only the fifth inning, if he’s safe there, now it’s second and third and the tying run is on first. But I’ve got to give that kid credit. He threw an absolute strike. Perfect play. Luke’s the fastest guy on our team. He got a good jump. The ball was hit right to him, the kid made a great play. It was a bang-bang play. It could have went either way.
“But yeah, that pumped them up a little bit. And then things kind of snow-balled a little bit in the following inning.”
The Golden Knights almost put Strath Haven in a 10-run rule box in the sixth inning, defensive replacement Spencer Piercey sending a pitch by Noah Atsaves over the left field fence to lead off the frame.
“I was filling my water cup, I was about to take a drink and I heard it,” said Geisler, who went 2-for-3 with a double and three RBIs. “This is the kind of team where nobody wants to make the last out.”
It helped to get a solid six-inning effort from pitcher Matt Fricker, who threw close to 100 pitches. Fricker allowed four runs, none of them earned, scattered six hits and three walks.
Fricker also weathered a first inning featuring a small handful of infield hits by the Panthers. Anthony Viggiano and Chase Davis smacked RBI-singles to give the hosts a 2-0 lead.
“It wasn’t the start we were looking for but we have an incredibly scrappy, hard-nosed, resilient team,” Knights coach Brad Harkins said. “And they don’t panic in those types of situations. I think the throw home where our right fielder, Nick Maiorano, cut down their runner was pretty massive. But I thought overall our at-bats in the last two games have been great. We’ve had great two-strike at-bats. These guys just aren’t ready to end their season just yet.”
The Knights slapped 13 hits on the afternoon, three for extra bases.
The Panthers didn’t go without a fight. They loaded the bases twice in the sixth inning, scoring two runs, the big blow an RBI-double by Koll Peichel. Viggiano led off the last inning of his high school career with a double and scored on a single by Andrew Yates.
“They fought all the way to the end, and that’s a credit to the senior leadership on this team,” Fili said. “They never think the game’s over. This is a really good group of seniors, especially the leaders, Luke Mutz and Anthony Viggiano. I could come to practice an hour late if I wanted to do and these guys would all be doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Mutz, headed to Swarthmore College, won’t be far away to stop in and provide assistance to the next installment of the baseball Panthers.
“I’m going to remember all the guys on the team,” Mutz said. “How hard they worked. How hard they worked for me. All the time they put in. Great group of kids. And most importantly, I’m going to remember how we had fun winning baseball games. It was a great season.”
Viggiano, like spectators who thought Mutz was safe at home, will wonder what a spark could have done for the Panthers.
“I was right there,” Viggiano said. “(Mutz) got his hand in. But the umpire, I guess he just thought he was out. It was a tough call. Hats off to the outfielder for making a great throw. Tough one. The last game definitely hurts. This year, by far it’s probably the best season I’ve ever had. But all four years are memorable. Each one of them had an impact on me and that’s how I became who I am today.”
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