Millionaires’ Tanner Esposito has thrived in postseason play

CHRISTOPHER DOLAN/Scranton Times Tanner Esposito can throw in Monday’s PIAA playoff opener after winning the District 2-4 AAAAAA final last Monday.

The crowd behind home plate and along the base lines at PNC Field last Monday was fairly large and could easily be distracting. But Williamsport pitcher Tanner Esposito never saw the spectators. He never heard them either.

It was just Esposito and catcher Michael Weber. The outside world melted away and Esposito went to work. And like an artist bringing all his colors together, Esposito painted a masterpiece with his right arm. Again.

Esposito threw a one-hit shutout in that District 2-4 Class AAAAAA championship as Williamsport blanked Scranton 10-0 in six innings and captured its first district title since 2011. It was Esposito’s second straight playoff shutout as the junior continued excelling when it matters most.

“I couldn’t hear anything out there. I was so zoned in,” Esposito said. “It was great to be a part of. The whole team played great.”

“Tanner is a tremendous pitcher,” first baseman Jalen Jackson said. “This is something he does day in and day out. We knew he was going to give us his best stuff and our best ability to win.”

Esposito has been brilliant the past two seasons, going 10-2 with a 1.45 ERA and 88 strikeouts. More impressive than the statistics is how Esposito has elevated his performance on the biggest stages. He has been as good as it gets in playoff games, never allowing a postseason run.

A year ago, Esposito made his playoff debut and overpowered Hazleton, throwing nine no-hit innings and striking out 11. Ironically, Esposito took a no-decision that game with Williamsport winning, 1-0 in 10 innings. This year, Williamsport has given Esposito run support and he has given it dominance, throwing 3-hit and 1-hit shutouts against Delaware Valley and Scranton. For those keeping score, Esposito has allowed no runs and just four hits in 22 playoff innings pitched.

That is video game-like quality but Esposito has made the difficult look routine each time.

“He’s a workhorse,” second baseman Jesse Cornell said. “We just know when he gets out there and competes the way he can we have a chance to be in line for a win.”

Esposito is not the biggest pitcher and does not throw the hardest. Watch him take the mound for the first inning and nothing stands out and screams brilliance. But watch him work. Few in recent years have done it so effectively at Williamsport.

This is a pitcher’s pitcher. Esposito throws hard but he does not reach the 90-mile per hour range. He simply mixes his pitches well, hits spots efficiently and embraces the moment. Against Scranton, Esposito struck out five, walked none and threw 55 of his 70 pitches for strikes as Williamsport ended its district title drought in emphatic fashion.

“It started (Sunday night) with visualizing success,” Esposito said. “Everybody was ready to play and it was great to be a part of.”

“That’s why he’s out there. He’s going to compete,” Miller said. “He doesn’t overpower you. He just pitches. That’s what he does and that’s why he’s successful. He’s going out there and mixing all three of his pitches for strikes and forcing them to get base hits. When you put that defense out there we’re capable of having and play the way they’re capable of playing it can make it difficult.”

Esposito excelled at the youth level and won multiple state championships while playing for Williamsport’s West End all-star team. But going from the youth all-star circuit to 6A baseball is a big jump. There is no guarantee that youth success will translate to high school success.

What Esposito has done since arriving at high school is work. He is constantly pursuing improvement and has honed his craft over the past three seasons. Esposito is 6-2 this season with a 1.72 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 49 innings. It has not been all sunshine and rainbows with Esposito allowing eight hits against Hollidaysburg and three earned runs in one inning against St. Mary’s.

That is baseball, that is sports. Athletes are not always going to be at their best but Esposito kept grinding away and has shined brightest at the perfect time. Going back to the regular season, Esposito has thrown three straight complete-games, surrendered just one run and allowed seven hits in 20 innings.

“The reason why Tanner is successful is he has a competitive drive,” said Miller, who won 12 games as a senior during Montoursville’s 2006 Class AA state final run. “He’s not the biggest guy out there and I’m sure when he warms up teams aren’t intimidated. But he gets out there and is a gamer. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen.”

That might be why one of the few people wowed by Esposito’s playoff performance is the player himself. Humble and driven, Esposito has pointed out things he could do better following each playoff win while showering his teammates with praise. He talked about throwing better 0-2 pitches and described his Scranton performance as “OK.”

As much as the pitching stuff he possesses, that is exactly what has Esposito where he is. He is never satisfied and does not rest on past achievements. It is on to the next challenge and it is about working toward being better that next time out. That next opportunity comes Monday against Perkiomen Valley, a tough team which survived a rugged District 1 field.

These are the challenges Esposito embraces. These are the games that make that hard work so worthwhile. And if he can his teammates continue working they might make games like these a regular occurrence next year, too. Maybe the best Esposito has is yet to come.

“He really didn’t pitch until last year. He pitched but not at this type of level,” Miller said. “Last year he became a pitcher and now he’s building off that. He has another year and he’s going to be scary next year, too. He’s a great kid and comes from a great family and he goes out there and he works hard. He’s a great team player and that’s what it takes.”