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District 1-5A Baseball: Strath Haven’s Pak goes the distance, shuts out Phoenixville to reach semifinals

EAST PIKELAND >> It’s a trend Phoenixville wants to buck.

But one it’s finding hard to shake.

For a second straight year, the Phantoms found themselves opening the District 1-5A playoffs with a home game. And once again, they were unable to parlay that advantageous start into an extended post-season run, bowing out Wednesday with a 2-0 loss to Strath Haven.

This time around, Phoenixville (14-6) ran into a Panther unit bolstered by the complete-game pitching of Alex Pak and an offense able to manufacture sufficient run support for the junior southpaw.

It proved an abrupt end to an otherwise promising campaign, one marked by a 10-0 run through the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s Frontier Division — one good enough to earn the Phantoms a berth in the Final Four playoffs — a second division championship and the fourth seed in the 5A field.

“The season goes from 0 to 100, then 100 to 0,” head coach Geoff Thomas said after huddling with his players one last time. “It’s hard to stomach.”

Pak’s bid for a complete-game shutout was in a race with the 103-pitch cutoff. He went into the seventh with 24 left, but Phoenixville ran the count up with Wade Carruthers and Adam DeJesus hitting one-out singles in threat to his designs.

But the lefty got the job done one pitch under the limit, coaxing a fly out to second base and striking out the final batter. His line for the seven innings listed five hits and four strikeouts, with no walks issued.

Strath Haven will host eighth-seeded West Chester East — a 10-6 winner over top-seeded Chichester — in Friday’s 5A semifinal.

“He was definitely up against it,” Strath Haven head coach Brian Fili admitted. “One reason I called time when I did was to give him a breather, settle him down. I also wanted him to know where he was in the lineup. I wanted him to attack the eight and nine hitters, to make it easy on himself.

“Getting eight and nine out was big for us.”

Three times, Phoenixville got runners to third base: In the second, with Dylan Antonini hitting a double and getting wild-pitched a base closer; in the fourth, Drew Kingsbury reaching base on an error, stealing second and moving up off Antonini’s grounder to third; and on Carruthers’ single in the seventh. Each time, Pak and the Panther defense were able to leave the Phantoms empty.

“It’s a tough loss,” Thomas said. “It’s been the scenario the last two games. Their team is well-coached. They manufactured runs, and we didn’t.”

Phoenixville got a strong pitching effort of its own from Avery Schwartz. Completing the lefty-on-lefty duel of starting pitchers, the junior held the Haven to four hits and a pair of walks while striking out four.

He fell victim to a higher pitch count coupled with the Panthers getting their runs in the fifth. He was replaced by Antonini after just 4-1/3 innings, during which he threw 93 pitches and was touched for SH’s runs with help from hits by Sam Milligan (double) and Mike Valente .

“We preached it all week,” Fili said. “We’ve struggled to score runs. We told them if they get two strikes, they have to battle … foul pitches off, dig in.

“A lot of it had to do with prolonging at-bats. They executed the plan.”

To its credit, the Phoenixville defense played a key part in keeping the game close. Hudson Narkise made a number of big catches in center field, and catcher Nico Nattle twice forced baserunners at home plate while throwing out another at second base to end the third inning.

“This is Nico’s first year,” Thomas said. “He’s going to be a very successful player.”

Reveling in a solid core of returning pitchers — Schwartz and Antonini among them — Thomas admitted to feelings of sadness about the departure of the team’s senior players to graduation in a couple weeks.

“I’m going to miss our seniors,” he said. “We had a huddle after the game, and there were some teary eyes.”

Strath Haven, in the meantime, is guaranteed at least two more games to its postseason in a continuing bid for a district championship. It needs to win just once to qualify for the state playoffs, with District 1 advancing three teams.

“We’re a young team that’s getting better as the year goes on,” Fili said.

NOTES >> One of Nattle’s force outs at the plate came in the seventh, when he blocked off Milligan after the Panthers’ centerfielder slid around home plate and was called out for leaving the basepath trying to come back. “He knows how to block his territory,” Thomas said. … Colin Bull threw the seventh for Phoenixville. He and Antonini combined for 2-2/3 innings of two-hit relief.”

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