EPHRATA >> Two teams, two aces and two pitch count philosophies were on display Monday in the PIAA Class 5A state baseball semifinals at Ephrata High School’s War Memorial Field.
Though the temptation was to give Lower Dauphin the decision by virtue of its 3-2 win, eliminating Archbishop Carroll, there were too many variables, including errors, to chalk it up strictly to coaching strategy. But there is room for debate.
The plan for the Patriots (20-6) was to give Jake Kelchner no more than 75 pitches, which, according to state rules would enable him to throw in the state championship Thursday. Coach Mike Costanzo wasn’t thinking about a title game when he removed Kelchner one batter, one runner and zero outs into the fifth inning in favor of Tyler Kehoe.
“I just felt like it was the (right) time,” Constanzo said. “He was getting a couple balls up and I like taking care of the kids’ arms. He’s got a very, very long career in baseball ahead and I just saw that it was not his day — and he still pitched really well.”
Kelchner said he didn’t want to exit. Seniors never do. Moments later Kehoe was touched for a two-out RBI double by Jarek Bacon to give the Falcons a 3-1 lead.
“I wanted to stay,” Kelchner said. “I just wanted to keep going. I thought I had it in me but (Costanzo) didn’t. He cares about me. Not a lot of coaches are like that. My arm hasn’t been feeling that well. So that’s why he took me out.”
On the other side of the diamond, Carson Kulina threw 102 pitches in 5.2 innings of work. On this day, Kulina, who can’t be more than 5-foot-9 in his baseball spikes, had more velocity than the 6-2 Kelchner.
Kulina also had something else working for him — his father, Ken, is the coach of the Falcons.
“He was going to 100 pitches and Will Manley was going to finish,” Ken Kulina said. “(Carroll is) a very good team with a very good pitcher. We knew we had our work cut out for us tonight. Carson kept them at bay and we found a way to get some runs.”
Manley also inherited a runner but didn’t let him tally, although the Lower Dauphin reliever had a two-run cushion.
Ken Kulina believes removing the starting pitcher in close games impacts the game on some level.
“It does, it does,” Kulina said. “That pitch count, it really adds something to this. You really can’t have two long innings. Once that happens, he’s not going to throw a complete game. (Kelchner) didn’t get a lot of complete games from some of the stuff I saw on him. I did know he had 47 innings pitched, so I did think they would get him a little early, maybe the fifth or sixth inning.”
For the sake of argument, Costanzo felt the pitching change had “no impact” on the game. There were plenty of other factors to take into account. The Patriots scored a playoff-low two runs. They’d been steam-rolling opponents.
The Patriots tallied a run in the sixth inning without getting a hit. Kelchner drew a walk, Chris Grill was hit by a pitch and Kelchner scored on a throwing error by shortstop Connor Buggy, who was unable to turn a double play. Kehoe had two of Carroll’s four hits.
Kehoe, by the way, was throwing lasers. He struck out five of six batters he faced before giving up a two-out double in the seventh inning. Kehoe got out of the frame with another strikeout.
It takes time to get used to the Ephrata baseball diamond carved out of the football field. Park too close to the field and you have a decision to make — take the dent on a foul ball or pay the deductible.
The yellow tips of the temporary outfield fences blend closely with the rails of the football bleachers. You can lose yourself out there.
The lights were funky as well, outfielders struggling to find balls in the contest that began at twilight at 7:13.
The winner was scheduled to take on the Marple Newtown-West Allegheny survivor Thursday at 6 p.m. in State College. Several Marple players took in the Carroll semi, exhorting their Delco brethren to reach the state title game.
Kelchner thought it was a classy gesture. He just wishes he and his teammates had a little more pep in their step.
“I just thought we were kind of flat the whole game,” Kelchner said.
“I think we didn’t really come ready to play and just came out flat, honestly. That loss is on us, it’s on me, not hitting my spots, just not doing my job today. That’s what happens with good teams. They beat you. And you can’t make errors, either. That kills you. You can’t make errors against good teams.”
Costanzo isn’t going to ruminate over pitch counts when he remembers this Patriots squad.
“Just their resilience and the way they fight every game,” Costanzo said. “Their preparation during practice is unbelievably professional. They just brought it every day. It’s really something special to watch. It was a very easy group to coach. It was fun. We just came up a little short.”
Contact Bob Grotz at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @bobgrotz.