BEAVER FALLS – When Washington High School baseball coach Rocky Plassio scanned the final WPIAL standings and tried to predict who the Section 2-AA champion Prexies would play in the first round of the playoffs, there was one third-place team that made him nervous.
Plassio knew Laurel, though only 9-7 in the regular season, wasn’t your typical third-place team. The Spartans have George Washington University recruit Brandon Ritchie, who is one of the top pitchers in Class AA. When Ritchie pitches, Laurel is anything but a third-place team. The Spartans become capable of beating any opponent.
“When a team has that one kid who makes a difference, a stud like that, it can give a team an added boost of confidence. It can play better than it really is,” Plassio said. “When I saw we were playing Laurel, I knew runs would be hard to come by.”
One run made the difference in the Class AA first-round game Monday at Chippewa Park. Laurel scored on consecutive hits in the fourth inning, and that was all Ritchie needed as he threw a two-hitter in the Spartans’ pitching-dominated 1-0 victory over Wash High.
Ritchie (6-1, 205), a right-hander, threw 89 pitches, striking out 13 and issuing only one walk. Ritchie struck out at least one batter in every inning. In the second inning, when Wash High loaded the bases with one out, Ritchie struck out four batters because of a strikeout-wild pitch that allowed Jordan Mooney to reach base.
“We knew Ritchie was really good. We faced him two years ago in a playoff game (a 4-0 Laurel win). He came in during the middle of that game,” Plassio recalled. “He has good command. We knew we were going up against the best.”
If Ritchie is the best pitcher Class AA has to offer, then on this day Wash High’s Jordan Allen was No. 1A. Allen matched Ritchie pitch-for-pitch for most of the game, throwing a five-hitter with five strikeouts. Allen worked ahead in the count, used both sides of the plate and took advantage of Laurel’s aggressiveness by filling up the strike zone.
“The thing that helped was that I was throwing strikes,” said Allen, who threw only 77 pitches in the complete game. “They were swinging early in the count, so I just tried to make them hit strikes. Throwing strikes is how you’ll get hitters out. Two timely hits are all they had.”
Those hits came in the bottom of the fourth inning. Josh Dando led off the inning by dropping a hit just inside the left-field line as Wash High left fielder Jonathan Spina did a good job of holding Dando to a single. Ritchie then lined a shot to about the same spot on the field. Spina made a diving attempt to catch the line drive, but the ball rolled down the line and into the corner for a double as Dando raced around to the bases to give Laurel the 1-0 lead.
Allen held the Spartans scoreless the rest of the way.
“Our kid went toe-to-toe with their pitcher and matched him all day,” Plassio said.
Wash High’s best chance to score came in the second inning, when the Prexies didn’t even have a hit. Mooney reached base on the wild pitch, and then Jesse Spara was hit with an 0-2 pitch. One out later, Chris Goiun’s grounder to second base was booted, loading the bases. Ritchie, however, worked out of the jam by getting two more strikeouts.
“If you would have told me before the game that we would give up only one run, then I would have liked our chances,” Plassio said. “But we just didn’t execute when we had chances. After we left the bases loaded in the second inning, I had a bad feeling. When you don’t capitalize against a pitcher like that, then it comes back to haunt you every time.”
Wash High’s only hits were a line-drive single up the middle by Allen on the game’s second pitch and Lincoln Key’s double to left field with two outs in the fourth. Key advanced to third base on a passed ball but was stranded there when Ritchie got Gouin to ground out to shortstop.
Spara was hit by a pitch for a second time, on the first pitch of the seventh inning, but Ritchie put an exclamation point on his outing by ending the game with three consecutive strikeouts.
“We didn’t hit today,” Allen said. “We just didn’t have any offense.”