Haverford can’t solve Miller in shutout loss

TREDYFFRIN — The words didn’t come easily for Haverford pitcher Scott McKenna Wednesday afternoon.

“It just wasn’t my day today,’ McKenna said. “It was their day today. It just sucks. … I’m just mad I let my teammates down.’

The apologetics aren’t warranted from the lefty, who stitched together a marvelous effort despite winding up on the wrong side of a 1-0 decision to Conestoga in a pivotal Central League matchup. But they are a testament to two things: To the virtuosity of his opposite number, Stoga starter Tim Miller, and to the distance that McKenna’s Fords have come this season.

With the win, Conestoga (12-6, 11-4) guarantees itself at least a share of the league title, which they can win outright by beating Upper Darby in their Central League finale next week. Haverford heads home knowing that baring an unlikely Conestoga stumble, the Fords (11-5, 10-5) missed their winner-take-all shot for a first league title since 1994.

Whatever his opinion, it wasn’t for lack of effort on McKenna’s part. The Fords hurler gave up seven hits over six innings, walking one and bending breaking ball after breaking ball to strike out five. He pitched out of trouble time and again thanks to a steadfast defensive effort behind him.

He appeared on the verge of doing so again in the fifth, with runners on second and third and two outs when Conestoga designated hitter Len Watson flared a single into shallow right-center to score Alex Burger, the courtesy runner for Miller.

“I was expecting a curveball because he was up on the count,’ Watson said. “But he threw a fastball, and I was kind of late on it, which was good because (with a) man on second base, you want to hit the ball to right field to get him in. I hit it, and off the bat, I knew it was going down.’

The rest was up to Miller, who was just sensational. He allowed just four baserunners (three hits and a hit by pitch) in seven spotless innings. He struck out seven and retired 13 straight Fords from the third to the seventh innings.

After plunking Tom Leonard with one out in the seventh to end that streak, he started a game-ending 1-6-3 double play off the bat of Dylan Resnick to seal the win.

That Wednesday’s game was so pristine should’ve surprised no one. McKenna and Miller matched up earlier in the season, a 2-1 victory for the Pioneers thanks to a pair of seventh inning runs, which included a triple by Miller.

Both pitchers were firing again Wednesday in a game completed in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it hour and 28 minutes, where familiarity bred no advantage for the hitters. It was a different story for the pitchers.

“I called my catcher out in the last inning, told him to give me a shake-off and a high fastball,’ Miller said of the at-bat with Nick Cerelli to start the seventh. “He gave me a shake-off and I threw a high fastball, and the kid swung and missed. When you pitch against them two times in a row, you really know what they do, what their tendencies are.’

Conestoga threatened early and often. They loaded the bases with one out in the first before a fly out and groundout ended the threat. McKenna stranded six Pioneers in scoring position, including two after Watson’s breakthrough RBI on a sensational barehanded stab at second base by Kevin Maloney.

Conestoga’s performance, with their nominal No. 2 starter in Miller, illustrates that the Pioneers are close to peaking late in the season as is their habit. They’ve struggled recently to make the Central League race interesting, but a win like Wednesday’s indicates that they’re on the path to rediscovering the form that led to last year’s PIAA Class AAAA title game.

“When you win the second-to-last game of the year 1-0, you know you have what it takes to win playoff games,’ Miller said. “And every playoff game is going to be down to the wire, and we need to do everything we can to get those wins.’

The chance to finish second in the Central League may ring hollow for Haverford in the immediate aftermath, but it requires a dose of perspective. Resnick, who made several nice defensive plays at third base, readily acknowledges that the Fords have surprised themselves by getting to this point. The aspirations entering this season were much more modest, and the opening for a league title only materialized as Conestoga hit some unexpected roadblocks down the stretch.

Even in defeat Wednesday, there are positives to take away, once the sting subsides.

“Honestly, our expectations weren’t as high coming into the year, some of the seniors’ weren’t,’ Resnick said. “We really pulled it together, had a harder-working offseason than the last couple of years and really pulled it together. …

“Just having this opportunity is really good. Seeing what we’re made of, seeing that we have the caliber of players to play during the playoffs and Central League championships teams and teams that consistently do this.’

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