WEXFORD – The WPIAL baseball playoffs act as a magnifying glass on most teams.
These games, played mostly in a one-and-done format, tend to expose weaknesses.
Such was the case for Canon-McMillan Wednesday afternoon at North Allegheny High School.
The Big Macs’ pitchers walked six batters, and five came around to score, in a 7-3 loss to Hempfield in the Class AAAA quarterfinal game. C-M also had two players thrown out at home plate and the Big Macs left seven runners on base, including three in the fourth inning.
On some days and against some teams, those situations can be overcome. Not as much the deeper a team gets into the playoffs. That’s why the season ended for Canon-McMillan (12-8) and Hempfield (19-3) moved on to the semifinals.
“We weren’t at our best today,” said Canon-McMillan head coach Frank Zebrasky. “With the way we played this year, I always feel we’re in the game.”
There is solid evidence for that belief. Canon-McMillan began the season losing four of the first five and six of the first 10. But a 7-6 win at Peters Township ignited a seven-game winning streak that sewed up the Section 5-AAAA title.
Hempfield stopped the run with a 7-4 win, but it was a game that was meaningless in the standings and more an opportunity to get playing time for some.
“No one other than the players in that dugout and coaching staff thought we could go this far,” said Zebrasky. “They battled to the end.”
Coming off an 11-6 victory over Moon in the first round of the playoffs, Canon-McMillan saw John Ross take the mound against Hempfield, which won the Section 2-AAAA title and shut down Fox Chapel 2-0 in the first round behind an 18-strikeout performance by Zach Martinello.
Ross walked Joey Defloria with two outs in the first and scored on a double by Greg Martin, who finished 3-for-4 with three RBI.
Ross walked Nolan Beresford to open the second inning and he came around to score on a groundout by designated hitter Brian Tomajko to make it 2-0. Two more walks in the third and one in the sixth also would come around to score.
Teagan Piechnick put the Big Macs on the board aqnd cut the lead to 2-1 with a solo home run off Hempfield starter Greg Martin to lead off the third. Buzz Boggio walked and was replaced by courtesy runner Dustin Bernardi, who was sacrificed to second by Connor Coleman. Bernardi was thrown out at home by left fielder Jeff Livengood on Frank Fortunato’s single. Zebrasky argued the call … to no avail.
“I saw the catcher continue to try to tag him,” Zebrasky said. “That’s an indication that he missed him. I also saw some space, but the umpire said he tagged him.”
C-M would have another player thrown out at the plate in the fifth.
Trailing 4-2, Kevin Forrester beat out an infield single and Jared Beach was hit by a pitch. Justin Davey’s sacrifice bunt was thrown past first base, allowing Forrester to score but Beach was thrown out by right fielder Lake Fox, who was backing up the play. The inning ended with C-M trailing 4-3.
“Those two defensive plays were absolutely huge,” said Hempfield head coach Tim Buzzard. “It shut down their momentum.”
Ross lasted until the third, when he lost his control. He walked the first two batters on eight pitches, gave up a two-run single to Martin and walked Marc Demilio. Of Ross’ 15 pitches that inning, only two were strikes.
Martin lasted until the fourth. But he made arguably his best pitch of the game when he hit the outside corner of the plate for a called third strike on Fortunato with the bases loaded.
“The strength of our team is pitching and defense,” Buzzard said. “Our team ERA is around 2.00, so opponents are not going to score more than a couple runs.”
Whatever hope Canon-McMillan had of rallying was ended when Hempfield scored twice in the bottom of the sixth to make it a four-run deficit. Nate Mori drove in one with an infield single and Defloria made it 7-3 with an RBI single to center.
“This group of seniors matured an awful lot,” Zebrasky said. “They worked hard in the summer and the fall. These guys played hard, and I’m proud of every one of them.”