Rally in 4th inning lifts Pine Grove to a win

BLOOMSBURG – Ryan Leffler led his Pine Grove team into the dugout prior to its fourth-inning at-bat against Warrior Run on Thursday afternoon. A frustrated Cardinals offense needed something to get it going.

So Leffler picked up all dozen or so bats leaning against the fence of Central Columbia’s First Keystone Community Bank Field and threw them all to the ground.

“Let’s wake up the bats,” the coach yelled to everyone, but nobody in particular.

Nobody in the Pine Grove dugout flinched. It’s something they’ve seen before. But it always sends quite the spark through the Cardinals offense. Pine Grove nickel and dimed Warrior Run to death in the fourth inning of yesterday’s PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal. The Cardinals put down five bunts that inning, none of which resulted in an out by the Warrior Run defense. Nine of the 11 batters in the inning reached base, and Trish Kopinetz delivered a back-breaking two-run single as Pine Grove remained undefeated with an 8-0 win over Warrior Run.

Pine Grove advances to Monday’s PIAA semifinals to play Bloomsburg at a site and time to be determined.

“That’s nothing unusual,” said Kopinetz of Leffler’s outburst. “I think we all kind of wanted him to do that. I think other people might say he tends to be a little crazy or a bit much, but we love it.”

To that point, Warrior Run pitcher Madi Waltman and Pine Grove pitcher Liv Lehman were working on dueling no-hitters, with Lehman not allowing a baserunner through the Defenders’ first four at-bats. Leffler was growing impatient as his offense, which hadn’t been held to fewer than 10 runs in a game since April 6, could muster only a couple walks for baserunners.

So when Megan Wolfe led off the fourth inning with a walk and the bottom half of his lineup due, he changed the gameplan slightly. He asked the next four batters to lay down bunts.

Avery Nagle’s bunt landed halfway between home and the pitching rubber and she reached on a single putting two runners on base. Maura Lehman’s bunt toward third got no throw from the defense and loaded the bases. Kamryn Stine’s bunt toward first drew a throw to the plate which got past catcher Jade Swartz allowing a second run to score.

Another bunt was bobbled in the field, loading the bases. And after Kate Rittenbaugh forced in a run with a bases-loaded walk, Kopinetz delivered the dagger, driving a two-run single to left-center field, giving Pine Grove a 5-0 lead. They were the 70th and 71st RBIs this year for Kopinetz.

“Her first couple of at-bats, she got beat,” Leffler said. “We always say the next at-bat is the one that counts most. She stayed positive and that was her biggest at-bat of the day. That broke it open.”

And on a day where there were dueling no-hitters, one run felt like it was going to be enough to win. But Pine Grove didn’t stop at one, two or even five runs. Liv Lehman beat out a bunt for a hit to drive in a run. A wild pitch allowed another to score. All of a sudden one mistake by the Warrior Run defense had snowballed into a seven-run inning.

“Those bunts were in that no-man’s-land and they’re fast. We knew that was going to happen,” Warrior Run coach Garth Watson said. “They push bunt. We knew that coming in. It wasn’t a surprise. It’s disheartening when they only hit two balls to the outfield that inning and they scored seven runs. We’re better than that.”

From there, Liv Lehman took over. The same pitcher who struck the first five batters she faced, and seven of the first nine, let her defense work behind her over the final three innings. She needed just four pitches to escape the fifth inning. The only blemishes on her record were Lauren Watson reaching on an error in the sixth inning, breaking up the perfect game, and Gracy Beachel driving a single to left field to end the no-hitter in the seventh inning.

It was by no means an overpowering performance, but the Defenders never got a handle on Lehman. She struck out eight in the shutout, seven coming in the first three innings. Warrior Run never sent more than four batters to the plate, and nobody reached second base safely.

“I thought we’d put the ball in play better against Lehman and I thought we’d drive the ball. We worked really hard on that,” Watson said. “We had a great gameplan, we just didn’t execute.”

“She was on her game,” Kopinetz said. “This is one of the best days I’ve ever seen her pitch and I’m really proud of her.”

In all Thursday, Pine Grove laid down seven bunts. Only one of them produced an out, and that was a sacrifice bunt by Stine in the fifth inning. The Cardinals went 4 for 6 in at-bats they bunted. And on the two plays which didn’t produce a hit, one led directly to two runs, and the other led indirectly to two more.

On his notepad in the dugout, Leffler had written in bold letters and underlined many times, “Bunts Win Games.” That was never more evident than Thursday. Even on a day where it was held to its second fewest number of runs this season, playing that small ball changed the whole game.

It left Watson, whose Defenders have reached the state quarterfinals each of the last two seasons, scratching his head and wondering how after working on it all year, the bunt defense went south at this moment. The bunts also showcased the rest of the state this is a Pine Grove team which can win in whatever way necessary. It had just six hits, but it made those six count.

“When you face a pitcher of (Waltman’s) caliber, you can’t strike out,” Leffler said. “We had a feeling we might squeeze some bunts in or get some bunts down just to see what they do defensively. And if they give us an inch, we take advantage of it.”

“It got away from us a little bit and we were a little unsure with the runners of where to go and we just weren’t focused,” Watson said. “Defense is something we’ve been lights out with all year. We’ve only committed 22 errors all year. Hats off to them. In order for them to put the ball in play, they bunted. Unfortunately there was a couple miscues on our part. You have to do what you have to do to win.”

Pine Grove 8, Warrior Run 0

(PIAA CLASS AAA QUARTERFINALS)

Warrior Run 000 000 0 – 0 1 4

Pine Grove 000 700 x – 8 6 1

Madi Waltman and Jade Swartz. Liv Lehman and Trish Kopinetz. W–Lehman. L–Waltman.

Top Warrior Run hitters: Gracy Beachel, 1-3. Top Pine Grove hitters: Trish Kopinetz, 1-4, 2 RBIs; Liv Lehman, 2-3, 2B; Avery Nagle, 1-3, run; Maura Lehman, 2-3, 2 runs.

Records: Warrior Run (21-4), Pine Grove (26-0).

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