ASTON >> David Rodriguez went for a ride.
Holding the PCL baseball plaque above his head, the Father Judge junior pitcher was hoisted aloft by his teammates while lifting the spoils of their accomplishment even higher. It had been a long time, 23 years to be exact, since the Crusaders last claimed a PCL baseball title and fittingly enough it wasn’t even decided until Rodriguez’s final pitch Saturday afternoon at Neumann University.
Rodriguez went the distance, pitching a complete game as top seed Father Judge edged No. 2 seed La Salle in a 3-2 decision to bring home its 10th PCL baseball title but its first since 2000.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team, all of us grew up together, we’ve all played together since we were five so having trust in my fielders and knowing they were going to make the plays, it’s like a blessing,” Rodriguez, who resides in Trevose, said. “We all got prayer cards before the game and as soon as we got on that bus and read our prayer, I knew we would come into this game with a different mentality.”
The PCL’s Pitcher of the Year, Rodriguez struck out eight batters and walked just two. After Judge took the lead for good in the bottom of the fourth, the right-hander allowed just two runners to reach in the final three innings, although one of them certainly made things interesting at the conclusion of the game.
That runner, who represented the tying run in the top of the seventh, got to second base but no further and represented the day well for La Salle. While the Explorers out-hit Judge, they had plenty of other ropes hit right where a fielder happened to be standing.
Junior catcher Kevin Schmidt, who had both La Salle RBI and notched two hits at the plate, said it was a disappointing ending but overall he and his teammates put together a worthy season.
“I kind of had it playing out with us winning but I knew it was going to be a close game,” Schmidt said. “I knew it would come down to the last out.
“Our senior leadership was top-notch and I couldn’t have asked for anything more from our guys. It started in the winter with 6 a.m. workouts, we had some tough games, didn’t come out on the right end of this one but we’ll be back.”
La Salle loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the second, looking poised to get to Rodriguez early. A ground ball to second led to a force out at home for the first out before Schmidt lofted a sac fly to center field that brought in Aimon Chandler but Rodriguez rebounded with a strikeout to limit the damage.
Judge responded with two runs in the bottom of the second, a frame that saw a lot of traffic on the bases and included the Explorers getting outs via a force out at home, a pick-off at third and starter Tristan Helmick ending the frame on a called third strike but also had the Crusaders using RBI singles from Liam Newhouse and Declan Foy to take the lead.
“Rodriguez just really competed and when you look at what he’s done for them, along with this group of seniors – you go down their lineup, it’s senior, senior, senior – they’ve been building to this,” La Salle coach Kyle Werman said. “Maybe you’re just destined to go a certain way. We out-hit them today, it came down to a couple free 90s, a couple breaks that didn’t go our way and we couldn’t get that extra bit we needed.”
Werman said his thoughts were with the team’s seniors, who followed prior classes by putting their own imprint on the season for the Explorers. The team had 14 seniors in total, with Tahir Parker, Tim Schuler, Nathan Kress, Colin Dunlap and Helmick all starting on Saturday.
They had different paths, Schuler being a part of the varsity team during the PIAA 6A title season his sophomore year and taking ownership of the group after last year’s quarterfinal loss. Kress went from a limited opportunity to locking down third base and being the player Werman called the team’s top offensive player while Helmick grew into the staff ace, a first team All-PCL pick and Lafayette signee after just a handful of innings as a junior.
“You saw guys rise to that occassion and grow into what those leadership roles were,” Werman said. “Their teammates fed off that and it was just an excellent group. We had a group of other seniors on the bench all year who were absolutely locked in wherever they were needed, it was a special group that was tied together and it’s sad they don’t get to have that a little bit longer.”
Schmidt tied the game up 2-2 with his RBI single in the top of the fourth that scored Matt Gannon, the second baseman lacing two hits in the game as well. In the seventh, trailing by a run, Schmidt gave his team a chance leading off with a single and the catcher was already talking after the game about following his seniors’ steps in leading the team next year.
“It starts now, going into the offseason and summer ball and looking to keep our guys together,” Schmidt said. “We had a lot of tough games, we lost three big ones early on and came back to beat some really tough teams. The adversity we went through, we came out better and it was due to the great bond we had.”
A two-out error kept Father Judge’s fourth inning alive, the Crusaders then working three straight walks with Brooks Henderson’s bases-loaded pass bringing in the go-ahead run. La Salle lefty Logan Potter came in to get out of the inning with a strikeout, leaving the bases loaded and the junior stayed keyed in by striking out five of the nine batters he faced and allowing just one hit in the next two innings.
It just happened the guy on the mound from the other dugout was doing his job pretty well too. Rodriguez said he was fired up once his team got the lead back and he backed it up by stranding a runner at second in the top of the fifth then getting back-to-back strikeouts and a ground ball to second for a quick sixth.
After Schmidt singled and a sac bunt moved runner Liam Hawley over, Rodriguez came back with a huge strikeout for the second out and induced a ground ball to Foy at third. The pitcher was happy the ball went to Foy, who he said came back as a senior after not playing his junior year and proved Rodriguez wrong with his defense at the hot corner.
Rodriguez deflected credit for the win away from himself several times, pointing to how much it meant to win a title for coach Mike Metzger, what it was like to bring the hubcap back to Judge and crediting his teammates. Once the trophy was theirs however, the Crusaders made sure their pitcher got his moment.
“It was amazing, I don’t even know what word to use to explain it, it didn’t feel real,” Rodriguez said. “We’re champs.”
La Salle 010 100 0 – 2 5 3
Father Judge 020 100 x – 3 3 1
WP: David Rodriguez. LP: Tristan Helmick