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Mathes digs deep, carries Marple Newtown to state final

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GREENE TWP. >> Alden Mathes knew he had it in him to pitch the game of his young life Tuesday. His Marple Newtown teammates didn’t doubt it for one second, either.

“He kept telling me, ‘I’m going to throw a gem,’” shortstop Kevin Merrone said. “I saw it in his eyes. I just told him, ‘I know you are, I know you are.’”

Mathes has pitched sparingly in 2018 due to an arm injury, and Tigers coach Mark Jordan has used caution with his prized junior lefthander, who is bound for Richmond University in 2019.

Prior to Tuesday’s PIAA Class 5A semifinal with West Allegheny, Mathes hadn’t thrown more than 65 pitches in an outing this season.

“I knew I had to throw more pitches than I have all year,” Mathes said.

He tossed 95 pitches in a masterful performance to send the Tigers to the state final. Mathes struck out 10 over 6⅓ innings, allowing only two singles, as Marple Newtown eked out a 1-0 victory over West Allegheny at scenic Greene Township Park. “We were here two years ago, semifinals of state, and we lost. It’s good to get it done,” Mathes said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The Tigers (24-2) play District 3 third-place finisher Lower Dauphin for the PIAA Class 5A title Thursday at Penn State University. Marple Newtown’s baseball program will return to a PIAA final for the first time since 2007, which is the last time a Delaware County team has made it that far, too.

The only run crossed via an RBI groundout by Luke Zimmerman in top of the sixth inning. Zimmerman, Marple’s ace, relieved Mathes in the bottom of the seventh for the final two outs. After a strikeout, Zimmerman got Luke Lambert to fly out harmlessly to centerfielder Andrew Cantwell.

But this one was all about Mathes and his dominance. He was filthy from the get-go, as he relied heavily on a curveball that he was able to locate with precision most of the time, and in key spots.

During practice Monday, and in the bullpen leading up to the game, Mathes snapped off curveballs to mixed results. He worked to find the right grip, knowing that he wanted his breaking pitch to be a real weapon Tuesday.

“I’m primarily a fastball pitcher and I usually rely on the fastball in strikeout counts,” Mathes said. “Today, the curveball was breaking a lot and, as you could see, they couldn’t really touch it. So we went with it.”

Cantwell sensed this would be a special day for Mathes.

“This kid takes pitching very seriously,” said Cantwell, the West Chester-bound backstop. “I know he couldn’t do it a lot this year, but he battles and today I think he told himself he had to step up. And in pre-game today, he told me he was going to do it. He was throwing the curveball about 100 times in practice at minimum. He just went off today with it. It snapped at the right time and his fastball was on. He was focused and making sure he was throwing strikes.

“He was 100 percent locked-in today.”

Six of the first seven batters Mathes faced were retired on strikes. He pitched in trouble in the fourth inning when slugging first baseman Shea Downing poked a single down the line in right field to put runners on the corners with one out. But Mathes got out of danger by striking out Brandon Cooper and forcing a fly out to medium center field.

Mathes made everything look easy.

“I know the last time out in the playoffs, he struggled a little bit. But I know, just by talking to him, he was ready. He’s always a competitor,” Zimmerman said. “He’s always ready to go at the snap of a finger. He was focused, 100 percent.”

Mathes gave plenty of credit to his batterymate, Cantwell, who has been a rock all year long.

“How many curveballs did I spike? I think I spiked about 15 and only one got by him,” he said. “I know I can throw a ball in the dirt and Luke is a brick wall back there. It’s huge.”

Mathes was pulled for Zimmerman after walking his fourth batter with one out in the seventh.

“Pitching all seven innings, a one-run game or a tie game, that gets to you, man,” Mathes said. “It’s nerve-wracking. To pull through with this win, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

Zimmerman needed only a handful of pitches to get the last two outs. With a 10-0 record and an ERA hovering around 0.50, the Saint Joseph’s recruit will get the start in Thursday’s state final.

“Once I saw Zim trotting out in the seventh,” Merrone said, “it was relief. I knew he would finish it off.”

Mathes led off the game with a single up the middle … and that would be the lone knock of the day for the Tigers.

“I don’t think in all my years coaching I have seen a team win a game and they’re only hit comes on the first batter of the game,” Jordan said. “You can’t fathom it. I said when Alden got the base hit, we’re going to have a good game hitting. Well, we had one hit all game. … That’s baseball, as crazy as it is.”

Jordan gave a shoutout to longtime assistant coach Jim Balk for making “some great calls in the dugout.” Jordan and Balk were among the coaching contingent the last time the Tigers advanced to a state championship game.

“We’re back to where we were 11 years ago,” Jordan said. “Hey, it was mentioned (in the Daily Times) just the other day, too. … I remember the game, vaguely, but not all of it. I have (aged quite a bit) since then.”

The Tigers scratched out the game’s only run in the sixth … without the benefit of a hit. Nine-hole hitter Sean Donnell worked a leadoff walk against West Allegheny lefty Austin Hendrick (who walked seven and was clearly out of gas by this time). Mathes reached on another Hendrick free pass, then Reilly Fillman reached safely on a sacrifice bunt that was mishandled by Downing at first base. It set the stage for Zimmerman, who has come through with so many clutch hits this spring, it’s hard to keep track anymore.

“I just knew, no matter what, there’s no way I am striking out here,” he said.

Zimmerman hit a line drive to the drawn-in infield. Second baseman Logan Scheider intended to throw home to nab Donnell, but couldn’t get a clean grip on the ball. Instead he was forced to retire Zimmerman at first.

When Mathes wasn’t striking people out, Marple’s defense played exceptionally well. Kevin Merrone made a few nice plays, including a tremendous diving stop up the middle with two down in the sixth. Merrone popped up and threw to the first baseman Zimmerman for the final out.

At that moment, the Tigers seemed destined to get to Penn State Thursday night.

“Two days left in the season, that’s all we got,” Mathes said. “So we have to give it all we have in practice and in the state championship on Thursday. I can’t wait.”

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