Hustle on early run sets up Loyalsock to win matchup of Division-I bound pitchers

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock third baseman Ryan Fink chases down a foul ball for the final out under the watchful eyes of Loyalsock fans in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday at Pottsville.

POTTSVILLE — As the baseball hung perilously somewhere in the no-man’s-land between second base, shortstop and center field, Larry Van Stavoren stopped watching it.

His head was down. That Road Runner of a leadoff hitter for Loyalsock was in full stride hitting third base while everyone else around Pottsville’s Steidle Field contemplated whether or not the baseball would fall in for a hit. Van Stavoren didn’t need to wonder. He was sure it was a hit off the bat of Hunter Webb.

After picking the ball out of the grass, Lancaster Catholic center fielder Dylan Atkinson gave a courtesy throw to the plate. Van Stavoren had already belly-flopped face-first into the loose dirt around home plate, creating a dust storm. But it wasn’t thick enough to hide his mad dash to score the first run of Thursday’s game.

Van Stavoren opened the momentous first inning of yesterday’s PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal against Lancaster Catholic with a walk which set the tone for how Loyalsock attacked Kentucky recruit Dillon Marsh. His confidence-fueled dash to the plate was the first dent in the armor of the Crusaders’ hard-throwing southpaw. It opened the door for a three-run first inning which led to the Lancers’ 6-4 win.

The box score will tell you Eric Holz’s two-run home run in the sixth inning was the difference in the score. The eyes of those in attendance Thursday will tell you it was that first inning which changed the entire complexion of a game which pitted Division I prospects Marsh and Andrew Malone against each other on the mound.

Loyalsock worked deep counts in that first inning on Marsh. The seven batters the Lancers sent to the plate in the first inning made Marsh labor like he’s had so few times this year. The end result was 37 pitches for Marsh and three runs on the scoreboard for Loyalsock.

The tone was set. A invigorated confidence flowed like the Susquehanna River through the Loyalsock dugout. Five of the seven Loyalsock batters in the first inning yesterday saw at least five pitches in their plate appearance. Of the two who didn’t, one hit an RBI single on the second pitch he saw.

It was a brilliantly executed gameplan of Gandhi-like patience, spitting on good pitches, ignoring ones out of the zone, and barreling ones Marsh left over the plate. They forced the pitcher with the upper-80s fastball to throw attackable strikes.

It was the perfect confluence of approach and execution and it paved the way to a win which puts the Lancers in the state semifinals for the seventh time in the last 10 years.

“I think after we saw that first run come across, we thought we’ve got something here and we have to keep pushing them across,” Loyalsock third baseman Ryan Fink said. “It’s a little tougher to be patient with a guy who throws that hard. You have to be a little more selective, but at the same time you can’t get burned. It’s tough.”

Loyalsock just made it look easy. Van Stavoren walked on five pitches. Chase McNulty put a slow roller into play on a two-strike pitch and the Crusaders couldn’t record an out. Then Webb hit his jam-shot dying quail into center field where nobody could catch it, sending Van Stavoren home with the first run.

At that point, three batters into the game, Marsh had thrown 16 pitches, wasn’t commanding a tight strike zone and was fighting an offense averaging 7 1/2 runs per game which was growing confidence by the pitch.

Fink stood in with one out and runners at second and third and fell behind 1-2 in the count, swinging late at a couple fastballs. Then he fouled off two pitches and took two others to run the count full before catching up with a fastball and lifting a sacrifice fly to center field.

It may have been the most crucial at-bat of the inning. It gave Marsh a way out of the inning with the second out, but it prevented him from minimizing the damage to just one run.

Two pitches later Connor Watkins ripped an RBI single to left field scoring Webb and giving the Lancers a 3-0 lead before Lancaster Catholic ever picked up a bat. The Crusaders went into catch-up mode but never caught up.

“When you foul off pitches like we did, that’s how you know you’re on top of somebody,” said Webb, who stood at home plate to admire his monster solo home run in the fifth inning. “With each pitch we felt like we were closer and closer to getting in our groove.”

“The guys just battled,” Loyalsock first-year head coach Zac Martin said. “We were going to be real patient and real selective and the kids were seeing the ball really well. Even the guys who got out, the result wasn’t there, but it was a quality at-bat.”

Marsh settled in following that first inning, just like you’d expect from such a quality player like him. He pinpointed his fastball much better. His breaking ball was more filthy than Pig-Pen from the Peanuts cartoons. His pitch counts over his final four innings were 17, 14, 11 and 17. He threw 96 pitches in his five innings, but the damage was done in that 37-pitch first inning.

Yesterday was the fourth consecutive playoff game in which Loyalsock has scored in the first inning. Twice those outbursts were complemented by the pitching staff tossing a shutout. Yesterday, Andrew Malone and Van Stavoren combined to make six runs stand up for the win.

Wondering if this is an anomaly probably isn’t fair anymore. This is just what this offense is capable of against even the best of pitchers. It’s confidence-fueled success which has become a runaway 18-wheeler headed down a mountain road.

And after Thursday, it’s the type of confidence which can drive this team past even the toughest of pitchers. And it’s hard to imagine they’ll see one tougher than Marsh.

Mitch Rupert can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.

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