PLYMOUTH TWP. >> Luke Zimmerman was cruising on the mound, seemingly without a worry in the world. The script was writing itself: Marple Newtown ace does it all.
He was through six masterful innings, allowing only one hit while striking out seven, and provided the lone offensive highlight of the day when he lifted a fly ball to left field in the third inning. Sean Donnell tagged from third base to score the first run of the game.
Tom Caufield stepped to the dish to lead off the seventh inning, with the Warriors trailing by a run. He needed to do something — anything — to spark his team.
“He’s a great pitcher and he was putting up a fight, obviously,” Caufield said of Zimmerman. “So, I wanted to try something different.”
Caufield, a North Carolina signee, dropped down a beautiful bunt that rolled up the first-base side between Zimmerman and first baseman Steve Morrison. Morrison had to cover the bag, leaving Zimmerman to do his best to field the ball. Caufield’s speed, though, was too much.
“I saw the first baseman was playing back and with the lefty pitcher flying to the third-base side, so I just wanted to bunt the ball to the first-base side somehow,” Caufield said. “My mentality was just to get on base.”
Caufield’s bunt single ignited Henderson’s bench. With runners on first and third and one out, Shane Angle dropped down a suicide squeeze, scoring Caufield with the tying run. Henderson, the No. 8 seed in the tournament, would score two runs in the top of the eighth on the way to beating third-seeded Marple Newtown, 3-1, for the District 1 Class 5A championship. The Tigers were three outs away from capturing their second consecutive district title.
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Henderson, though, showed resilience and became the first baseball team in school history to win a District 1 title.
And it all happened because a Division I prospect decided that he was going to bunt for a hit.
“The funny thing was, it wasn’t working all year,” Caufield said. “I tried that same play a couple of times and it didn’t work. Why not go for it again? It’s for the championship.”
The late rally by Henderson (16-8) spoiled another stellar outing by Zimmerman, who was pulled from the game with one out in the seventh inning. Mathes pitched the rest of the way for the Tigers, giving up a pair of unearned runs in the eighth.
“It’s baseball, it happens,” Marple coach Mark Jordan said. “The kid laid down a great bunt. The guy is a Division I player for a reason. He put it in a great place, you couldn’t have a bunt any better than that. Then the squeeze bunt (by Angle) was great to tie the game up and the delayed steal they had in the late inning. They played small-ball and it’s a credit to them.”
An error by Donnell, a sure-handed second baseman all season for the Tigers, opened the door for the Warriors in the eighth inning.
In its last two games, Marple has committed 10 errors.
“Sean’s been great all year, and hasn’t made an error all year, but the last two games he’s made four,” Jordan said. “Then we threw the ball and they get another run. It’s sloppy play that we can’t have in a game like this.”
Ian Tracy hit a chopper over Tyler Bogan’s reach at third base to bring home Brandan Gray with the go-ahead run. Later in the eighth, Evan Spano hit a grounder to shortstop Kevin Merrone, who kicked the ball while Cauffield was breaking from first on a hit-and-run. Caufield was on his way to third by the time Mathes got to the ball and overshot the throw to Bogan at third. Those two errors on one play — the ball never left the infield — allowed Caufield to score from first and give Henderson a 3-1 lead.
Marple Newtown went down in order in the bottom of the eighth. Spano, who relieved Justen Lucas in the bottom of the seventh, closed the door and picked up the win.
“We’ve only had three hits, and that’s not enough,” Jordan said. “Zimmerman pitched his tail off for the 11th straight time. He was 9-0 coming into the game and probably should have won his 10th game of the year.”
Zimmerman was undoubtedly frustrated that he couldn’t finish the game and lead the Tigers (21-2) to their second straight title. But he
applauded the Warriors for making him work in the bottom of the seventh.
“I thought I had them locked down for the most part. They had one hit until the last inning, and it was just a single up the middle,” Zimmerman said. “Even in the last three or four innings, you could tell they were trying to bunt and get on base. They had a few missed bunts. Their coach is smart, they kept trying it. They knew they weren’t hitting me, so why not try and lay a few bunts down and get a few guys on base. It worked for them.”
Zimmerman yielded to Mathes with one out in the seventh and went to first base, but he wasn’t ready to leave the mound quite yet.
“ I always feel confident and ready to go,” he said.
Marple Newtown will play the District 12 runner-up, either Archbishop Carroll or Boys’ Latin, in the first round of the PIAA Class 5A tournament next Monday. Meanwhile, Henderson will open the state tourney against the District 3’s third-place finisher, Cedar Cliff or Red Land.
The unsung heroes for Henderson were its relief pitchers. Starter Brady Bash was felled by an arm injury in the third inning. Justen Lucas replaced Bash and pitched the next 3.2 frames, striking out four. Marple threatened to win the game in the bottom of the seventh when Rob Weimer and Mathes reached on singles. Spano, in relief of Lucas, struck out Reilly Fillman to end the inning.
“I came off the mound as a starter this year, and there were a few times where I came on in relief, but I knew today was a big game,” said Lucas, a senior who will try to walk-on at Old Dominion. “We earned this. We came out fighting. Luke is a good pitcher, but we battled. Brady battled, too. Once he came out I knew my name was getting called. It was my time to shine. I relaxed and I just threw my pitches for strikes as best as I could and hit my spots.”
Henderson pitching hadn’t allowed a hit until the bottom of the sixth, when Zimmerman and Luke Cantwell laced back-to-back singles. And then … some controversy.
Merrone hit a pop up to the shortstop Caufield, who dropped the ball on the shallow outfield grass. The umpires did not call for the infield fly rule because Caufield had to make an effort to run under the ball. Zimmerman and Cantwell essentially had nowhere to go, and both runners were tagged out. Merone scampered to second base safely, but he was left stranded when Bogan hit a can of corn to the outfield for the third out.