CALIFORNIA – Alayna Astuto, Canon-McMillan High School’s indomitable pitcher, calmly scratched at the pitching rubber, took a deep breath and stared at the glove of catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko.
Meanwhile, at one end of the Big Macs’ dugout, head coach Michele Moeller stood statuesque and assistant Steve Moskal remained, for the seventh consecutive inning, positioned near a support pole in the middle, fearful that the slightest flinch would defy one of the greatest wonders in C-M softball history. Behind them were the Big Macs’ reserves, standing in wild anticipation.
Together, they witnessed Astuto putting the finishing touch on a virtuoso pitching performance under some of the most trying conditions.
Astuto, a senior right-hander, let go with a fastball that froze Hempfield batter Justyne Falbo and crossed over the corner of home plate for a called third strike. It was the final out in a perfect game Thursday evening for Astuto and set off a wild celebration in the pitcher’s circle.
That Canon-McMillan had won, 5-0, in the once-postponed, oft-delayed WPIAL Class AAAA semifinal at California University’s soggy Lilley Field seemed almost a mere footnote to Astuto’s performance. Hempfield sent 21 batters to the plate. Twenty-one returned to the dugout after making an out.
In other words, the girl from C-M, who only a few weeks ago was undefeated but frustrated by her performance, had pitched the kind of game that is usually reserved for dreams.
“That was incredible,” Moeller said. “I’m hoping this is what solidifies Alayna’s confidence. That couldn’t happen to a nicer kid. I can’t adequately explain how good of a heart she has. She does so many good things.
“Early in the season, she was putting too much pressure on herself. She felt she wasn’t getting the number of strikeouts she should be having. I told her to relax and enjoy her senior season. Hitters are getting better these days, so don’t try to strike everyone out. Believe in yourself and try to command the ball in the part of the strike zone that you want to pitch in.”
On this gray day, Astuto filled up the strike zone, did not walk a batter, struck out seven batters and dominated a potent Hempfield lineup so thoroughly that the Spartans hit only one ball that came close to producing a base hit.
“I’ve never thrown a perfect game, high school, summer leagues, never,” Astuto said with a wide smile, moments before boarding the team bus and getting a standing ovation from her teammates. “I didn’t even start thinking no-hitter until the last inning. I was looking at the big picture. We had to win.”
The game was postponed Wednesday because of rain, then delayed at the start Thursday by almost three hours because of rain and the game between Greensburg Salem and West Allegheny, which also was played at Lilley Field, lasting 10 innings. Then, there was a 20-minute rain delay before the Big Macs batted in the bottom of the sixth inning.
None of it bothered Astuto.
“It’s all mindset,” she said. “You’ve got to be mentally strong. That’s a very good team we were facing, and you have to find their weaknesses. I prepared myself overnight. I knew it was going to be challenging, and I had to get over (the delays).”
Astuto, who threw 93 pitches, worked fast and let her defense go along for the ride. The only threat for a hit came from the second batter of the game, Callie Madden, who hit a shallow fly ball to right field that C-M’s Abby McCartney made a slipping, sliding, diving catch at a spot on the field where the water from the infield tarp had been dumped about an hour earlier.
“Abby wasn’t waiting for it,” Astuto said. “I knew she wasn’t going to hesitate going for it.”
Madden also fouled off six two-strike pitches with one out in the seventh before lining out to shortstop Linda Rush.
The win not only sends the defending WPIAL champion Big Macs (20-1) to the title game to play North Allegheny Thursday back at Lilley Field, it also gives C-M a measure of revenge. Hempfield (17-6) had handed the Big Macs their only loss of the season, 17-6, in a non-section game April 5. Moeller chose not to pitch Astuto in that game, a decision that now looks like a stroke of brilliance.
“I didn’t want to give them a free round of batting practice against Alayna,” Moeller said.
Hempfield also did not pitch their starter, Hope Pehrson, in that exhibition game. C-M, however, didn’t waste time figuring out the Spartans’ ace. Yasmin Kotar and Rush (3-for-3) singled in the bottom of the first inning and came around to score on Olivia Lorusso’s two-out single.
The lead grew to 4-0 in the third when Zeremenko’s two-out single up the middle scored Maddie Engel and Rush. Zeremenko drove in her third run of the game in the sixth when she singled through the left side of the infield, driving home Lorusso, who had doubled.