WEST GOSHEN — The emotion bubbles out of C.J. Pruitt when he talks about the Sun Valley baseball program that’s beaten long odds and, every team in its path to advance to the District One Class AAA championship game.
The rebirth of the Vanguards reached another stage Thursday as they recorded a 5-1 victory over Radnor in the district semifinals.
Pruitt’s two-run, bases-loaded double, a sterling pitching effort from Christian Bateman and a defense that made routine play after play in cold, wet conditions at West Chester Henderson carried the day for the Vanguards.
The Vanguards enter the district title game against Holy Ghost Prep next Wednesday at Spring-Ford with momentum, having won eight of their last 10 starts. The way the Vanguards are playing all you can really say upon hearing of their 10-11 record is you’ve got to be kidding.
“This is huge for us,’ Pruitt said. “I mean, all of us came through. Going into the season every single team looked down on us. They looked at their schedule and said, ‘˜oh, Sun Valley, that’s a win.’ I mean we came together as a team and I can’t believe it but we became a heck of a team.’
Vanguards coach Neil Herman feels the vibe, too.
When once “The Vanguard Way’ warmups all but ignited tasteless jokes, the team is in such a groove Herman gets out of the way once the ump says play ball.
“I knew there was talent here,’ Herman said. “The first half of the season we struggled with the injuries and things like that and they had to get used to the system. But once they got used to how we play ball, between the lines, that’s when it just really took off and we’ve gotten hot. These guys have really just like come together. And I’m so proud of these guys I’m at a loss for words. To turn this around this quick … These seniors have been unbelievable since I’ve been here.’
On an unforgiving autumn-like day, the Vanguards exploded for all five of their runs in the third inning. Vinny Pro reached on an error, was sacrificed to second by Ryan Burton and trotted home on a single by Bateman, the starting pitcher.
Vinnie Carter was hit by a pitch from Charlie Connolly, who wouldn’t make it to the fourth inning, and Tyler Hastings drilled an RBI single to give the Vanguards a 2-0 bulge.
With the bases full, Pruitt pulled a double down the left-field line to plate two more runs. The fifth run scored on a wild pitch. Connolly was scorched for five runs on five hits in three frames.
“It was a one-inning game,’ Raiders coach Mark Jordan said. “We left nine guys on base and they capitalized on their one big inning. Give credit to them. And that pitcher threw what, 105, 110 pitches? He wasn’t overpowering. but he was crafty, in and out. And we hit a lot of balls in the air. We’ve won a lot of those games this year, those close games. But that one inning got us. That’s baseball for you.’
Justin DiCarlo came in and pitched four innings of no-hit, shutout ball the rest of the way for Jordan. It was too little, too late for the Raiders (12-9), who knocked off defending state champion Pope John Paul II, 4-1, in the previous round.
Bateman meanwhile was working on a four-hitter in his lengthiest appearance of the season. The catcher-reliever didn’t give up a run until the last of the seventh.
“It felt awesome,’ said Bateman, who scattered four walks and struck out three. “It’s always good as a pitcher to have that leverage of getting the lead when you go out there and try to throw strikes. I was working my off-speed a lot and just keeping them guessing at all times. They were putting the ball in play. My teammates were doing a good job of making every play they could. This is amazing. It’s a big accomplishment for our program and what we’re building.’
There are no coincidences in baseball, just bounces of the ball, good and not so good. But it sure seemed fitting for Bateman and Pruitt to be the triumphant battery in this semifinal.
Pruitt called Bateman’s pitching effort “a stellar performance’ and then expounded on how happy he was for his teammate, a sophomore.
“I’ve grown up with him,’ Pruitt said. “I’ve known Bateman since we were little kids. Me and him are best friends. We’re always with each other. We’re with each other every single day throwing, hitting or whatever. I consider that kid my little brother. And I’ll tell you what, it means a lot to see my little brother go out there and shut a team down.’
Bateman allowed just two hits over the last four innings. That confidence could go a long way for the Vanguards.
“I did not expect an outing like that out of Bateman,’ Herman said. “He’s been our reliever for most of the year and his ERA has been under 2.00. I had him start toward the end of the year because I thought he might be a starter for us come playoff time if we can get in, but he’s never gone this many pitches or this many innings this year. The kid is a warrior. He battles. He’s a tough kid. But I didn’t think he was going to shut them down to one run. He was going to do anything he could to win that game.’