TOWAMENCIN >> The situation in Friday afternoon’s bottom of the sixth inning would usually prompt a straightforward decision from North Penn baseball coach Kevin Manero.
Runners on first and second base with no outs and the Knights clinging to a one-run lead over Quakertown, Manero’s next move would customarily be for the batter to lay down a bunt.
But James Mangine coming up to the plate changed that plan.
“Just couldn’t bunt him, he’s just smoking the ball right now,” Manero said. “And keeps coming up big.”
The senior left fielder rewarded his coach’s trust and continued to swing a hot bat, connecting on his third hit of the District 1-6A quarterfinal – his single scoring Brady Dolder from second to provide North Penn with a two-run cushion.
“I was just sitting fastball, he threw me a curve,” Mangine said. “Took it to the left side and I was just going up there comfortable again. Just having the same mindset.”
The visiting No. 23 seed Panthers put their first two batters on base in the top of the seventh but Henry Wetzel navigated his way out of the jam, locking down the save and the No. 2 Knights’ second PIAA berth in three seasons as North Penn advanced with a 4-2 victory.
“Last year we went 6-10 in the league – tough, tough year, Manero said. “And these guys showed up about three days after the season was over and started setting goals. And they have been so fun to work with. To go from that to states is just awesome.
“We know we have big goals and this is just a checkbox on the list but this is a tough game to win. Tough, tough game to win and that is a very, very inspired Quakertown baseball team right now. I give our guys a lot of credit for showing up to play today.”
Mangine opened the postseason going 3-for-3 with a triple, two RBIs and two runs scored Wednesday in the Knights’ 9-0 second-round win over West Chester Henderson. He followed that with another 3-for-3 performance Friday, hitting a pair of doubles with two RBIs and a run scored.
“I’m just going up, trying to stay comfortable and thinking drive the ball to the right side,” said Mangine, who is set to play football at King’s College. “And if it’s there, swing at the first pitch if I like it.”
Wetzel was 2-for-3 at the plate with a double and a run scored while starting pitcher Jack Picozzi went a strong 5 2/3 innings as the Knights (18-4) move on to host SOL Colonial Division rival Central Bucks West in the semifinals Tuesday. The 14th-seeded Bucks upset No. 6 Coatesville 6-1.
“We put in just so many hours of work, in the weight room, working on our game the whole offseason and to see it all pay off now, I mean that’s huge for us,” Picozzi said. “I’m ready to keep working, the job’s not finished yet and I think we got a lot of good baseball ahead of us.”
Tuesday’s winner faces either No. 1 Spring-Ford or No. 5 Plymouth Whitemarsh in the district final Thursday at Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth.
North Penn – which last reached the final in 2017 – beat West in both of their regular-season contests, topping the Bucks on the road 12-3 March 30 then winning at home 5-3 May 9.
“We all know we put in the work in the offseason, lot of work and this is a great group of guys,” Mangine said. “I love every single one of ‘em. And we knew we were going to come this far, there’s no other option. Now we got to focus on a district title but then to states.”
Quakertown (11-12), the second-to-last seed in the 24-team tournament, could not pull off a third straight upset – having knocked off No. 10 Owen J. Roberts 7-2 in the first round then No. 7 Pennsbury 10-2 in the second – but can still earn a spot in states with a victory in district playbacks at No. 4 Abington Tuesday. Winner advances to the fifth-place game against either No. 6 Coatesville or No. 8 Avon Grove Thursday.
Picozzi kept Quakertown off the scoreboard for the first five innings, the senior right-hander committed to Ithaca College allowing two runs – none earned – on three hits. He walked three, hit two batters and struck out three.
“I was really trying to emphasize focus today,” Picozzi said. “Just taking it one pitch at a time, just trying to execute every pitch and I know that I got a great defense so I was confident that if they did make contact that my guys were going to make the play behind me.”
Panthers starting pitcher Cooper Natisin took the loss, giving up four runs – all earned – on eight hits. The lefty walked four and struck out four.
Mangine – batting eighth in the lineup – collected the Knights’ first hit, sending a double to the left-center gap to lead off the bottom of the third. He went to third on Mario Sgro’s bunt single then scored on a wild pitch to make it 1-0 Knights.
After a Justin Egner walk, Sgro came home for a 2-0 edge on a double steal that saw Egner thrown out at second. Kevin Brace’s walk and a Picozzi single gave North Penn two on with one out but a 5-3 double play kept the margin at two.
The Knights made it 3-0 in the fourth as Wetzel doubled to center with Mangine following with an RBI double to left center.
“To be honest, he had a couple of really tough games a couple weeks ago,” said Manero of Mangine. “He was lifting up off the ball, coming out of his legs, so he’s just concentrating on staying in the ground, staying through the ball, not trying to lift and get backspin or anything like that, he’s staying through contact. And he just had two really big games in a row in the biggest games of his career.”
Natisin led off the top of the sixth with a walk while Vinny Pellegrini dropped a single into center to give Quakertown two on with outs. Picozzi got a pop out in foul territory then a fly out to center but Tanner Clancy’s single to left along with an error allowing two runs to score, cutting the Knights’ lead to 3-2.
With Clancy at second, Wetzel came in to pitch and proceeded to strike out the next batter on three pitches.
“That was huge,” Picozzi said. “Hank’s been working hard all year. He’s been doing his thing on the mound and when he comes into the game, I just feel confident that he’s going to fill up the zone and get the job done.”
After singles by Dolder and Wetzel to start the bottom of the sixth, Pellegrini took over on the mound for the Panthers. Mangine made it three straight base hits for the Knights, his single allowing Dolder to come in from second, sliding into home to make it 4-2.
In the top of the seventh, Brayden Schuler led off with a single to left with Danny Qualteria getting hit by a pitch to put two on with no outs.
After Schuler was forced out at third on a fielder’s choice, Qualteria went to third on a fly out to center, giving Quakertown runners at the corners with two outs. Wetzel, however, ended the rally bid and picked up the four-out save by getting the next batter to ground out to third.
District 1-6A Quarterfinals
(2) North Penn 4, (23) Quakertown 2
Quakertown 000 002 0 – 2 4 0
North Penn 002 101 x – 4 9 1
WP: Jack Picozzi 5.2 IP 3 H 2 R 0 ER 3 BB 3 SO 2 HB.
LP: Cooper Natisin 5 IP 8 H 4 R 4 ER 4 BB 4 SO.
S: Henry Wetzel 1.1 IP 1 H 0 R 0 ER 0 BB 1 SO 1 HB.
2B: NP-James Mangine 2, Wetzel, Chase Jones.
North Penn; Mangine 3-3, 2 RBI, R; Wetzel 2-3, R.