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VFW falls in dramatic end to New Era Final
Everyone remembers that feeling that you got as a child when you were riding a see-saw. The elation at the top when your whole body flew into the air, or the jolt at the bottom when your end of the plank struck the ground.
That’s what the 13 and 14 year olds (plus their coaches) must have felt as Lititz VFW traveled the roads of the 69th annual New Era Baseball Tournament. Unfortunately, the journey ended on the bottom of the ride, as Lititz lost the championship game, 4-3 to number one seed Donegal Monday night at Kunkle Field in Mount Joy.
If you have never been to “Kunkle,” there are some interesting dynamics to the field itself. The 12-foot high outfield fence is short. It’s 220 feet down the lines, and only 250 to center field. This means that there are some fly balls that could be caught, only to end up as home runs. There are also balls hit off the wall in the gaps that result in only singles. Because the outfielders can play more shallow than normal, bloop hits are often caught, and the occasional well-stroked single to right field ends up as an out at first base (this happened Monday night).
So, let’s examine the see-saw ride. The qualifier series (best of three) pitted #2 seed VFW against #7 Manheim Township. Game one, the ride was up, as Lititz earned a 7-2 win. Game two, down, as VFW suffered a 6-5 loss to Township. Game three, up again, a 10-0 victory and they advanced to the double elimination phase of the Tourney at Kunkle.
After a week off for the New Era Midget finals, (we’ll call that the down part of the ride) Lititz took last Thursday’s contest over Elizabethtown Navy by a 2-1 margin for an up swing. Back down Friday with a bit of controversy. VFW lost to Donegal 3-2, but had the game tied at three until a protest from the Donegal side resulted in an illegal bat call, and the run was wiped off the board.
The final two games resulted in wild momentum swings, so we’ll examine those one game at a time. Saturday found Lititz pitted against E-town again. The Navy swung up first, jumping to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. VFW bounced right back, plating two in the first and one in the second to take a 3-2 lead without even the benefit of a hit (four walks, three wild pitches and two E-town throwing errors).
Down it comes again, as Navy ties it up 3-3 in the fourth. Some of these swings were bigger than others as Lititz put four on the board in the bottom of the fifth, punctuated by a three-run homer off the bat of third baseman Evan Clark. A huge down swing prevents VFW from feeling good too long as Elizabethtown found the plate six times in their next at-bat, highlighted by a three-run homer of their own (by pitcher Ryan Rupp).
Then in the bottom of the seventh (last inning) with Lititz down 9-7 and facing elimination, the ride wasn’t over yet. Once again VFW turned to Clark, who drove a fast ball over the right field fence to tie the game in regulation. Neither team scored in the eighth, but Navy broke through in the top of the ninth on a double by centerfielder David Shank (two hits) and an RBI single by Austin Denlinger (four RBI).
It looked, for the briefest second, like a great start in the bottom of the ninth for Lititz, as left fielder Carter Forney smashed a ball in the left-center gap. However, the bottom dropped out from under the elation, as Shank raced over from Center and snagged the ball following a full-out dive. Clark drew a walk, but a Major League pop up off the bat of right-fielder Nick Fucci left VFW one out away from the end.
Two walks later (E-town issued nine in the game) and the bases were loaded. The see-saw went down as lead-off hitter Bryce Zimmerman grounded to second. But, it snapped up again, as the ball was juggled, and the flip to second base was late, and Clark crossed the plate with the tying run. In the confusion, Lititz second-baseman Justin Byler got caught in a run-down between third base and home. The throw beat Byler to home by three steps. Surely he was out, but somehow Byler ducked his head, diving to the left and avoiding the tag as the umpire signaled “safe.” This triggered an eruption from both coaches and players on the Navy side of the field as their “saw” certainly hit rock bottom, and the game was over, an 11-10 VFW win.
Despite the high score, the pitchers deserved credit for success in Saturday’s game as Lititz starter Bryan Rottkamp, plus relievers Reed Martin and Zimmerman combined to strike out 14 Elizabethtown hitters. On the other side, despite the walks, starter Larry Locker and Rupp together wiffed 16 VFW batters.
The ride continued to teeter on Monday night during the championship game, again matching Lititz and Donegal, the top two seeds). A light rain started as Donegal took the field. A walk and two batters hit by pitches filled the bases. Then the rains came in earnest, seeming to take away the VFW momentum.
After a 50-minute delay, Clark drew a walk, driving in the first run of the game. During the stoppage, the Donegal coaches decided to lift starting pitcher Dawson Magar. Reliever Dale Houser moved from shortstop to the mound, and pitched the next three and a third innings. During that stretch, Clark homered to right field, expanding the Lititz lead to 2-0.
VFW starter Patrick Quinn was throwing blanks to all parts of the plate, shutting out the Indians until the fourth. In the fifth, Donegal center fielder Kyle Hess hit a line drive that took a crazy bounce off the right-center field wall and he ended up on second. Following a comebacker to Quinn for out number one, Houser took a page from Hess’ book, getting another strange bounce off virtually the same spot on the wall for an RBI double.
It appeared that first baseman Brady Steinman had tied it for Donegal as he ripped a single to right, but it one-hopped to right fielder Fucci, who threw to first, ending the inning.
The Lititz lead held at 3-2 until the bottom of the seventh, when Hess stroked the tying home run on the first pitch of the inning. Reliever Byler collected a ground out but surrendered a single to Houser before his night was complete. Martin came in, striking out Steinman, before walking second baseman Kobe Bistline. This brought to the plate Richard Velez, who had struck out twice and popped out to the pitcher in three previous at-bats.
Velez smacked a two-strike fastball off the right field fence, driving in Houser with the walk-off run. Valez was last seen rounding second with his hands in the air as his team-mates piled on to celebrate the New Era Championship.
Lititz finishes the season at 27-14-1, the champs of the 14-and-under Section One American Division.
Coach Dana Clark talked about his team’s ride through the tournament.
“It was exciting for me; I can’t imagine how the kids felt,” he said. “Baseball is a funny game. It’s certainly not just about one play or another. There were times that I was upset, and I’m sure that the other coaches felt the same way.”
Clark’s son Evan, who homered three times and drove in seven runs during the last two games, talked about his approach after hitting the first one out on Saturday.
“I was just trying to get on base, but he put a fast ball a little high where I like it and it went out,” he said.
Asked if this was his best day ever, Evan replied, “I would say so, possibly, yes.”
Championship game starter Quinn commented on his approach to moving the ball around the strike zone.
“I really don’t focus on location. I just try to throw strikes, and throw the ball hard,” he said.
The league rules only allow a pitcher to throw 95 pitches in any one game. Quinn had to be replaced with two outs in the sixth when he reached that number. Could he have thrown more, if that rule did not exist? “My arm didn’t hurt. I could have continued to pitch,” Quinn said.
When asked about his lefty pitcher, Coach Clark said, “He’s a ‘gamer.’ He’ll give us his best effort, whether he has his best stuff or not. Tonight, he had his stuff and the effort.”
Reflecting on the entire season, Clark went on, “The best experience occurred at the Mansfield Tournament,” he said. “One of the parents had a cabin in the area, and the boys really came together as a team. They bonded with each other, and won that tournament, and had great support from the parents as well.”