BUTLER, Pa. – Wednesday afternoon was supposed to represent a coronation of BR-5 Millersville as the most dominating baseball team in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, if not the Atlantic Region of D2 baseball.
The Marauders, after all, finished the regular season with a 25-3 record in PSAC East play and simply ran through many of their opponents with relative ease. During the first three days of the PSAC Baseball Championships inside Kelly Automotive Park, the Marauders scored 43 runs en route to Wednesday’s championship game in easily dispatching BR-169 California (Pa.) (22-4), BR-42 East Stroudsburg (15-8) and BR-12 Mercyhurst (6-3).
On paper, this meant that Wednesday’s championship game against BR-76 West Chester, a team the Marauders beat three times in the regular season, was supposed to a mere formality en route to a second straight PSAC title and corresponding automatic berth into next week’s NCAA Atlantic Regionals. After all, West Chester had to win the earlier consolation bracket game against BR-52 Seton Hill just to reach the title game.
Except somebody forgot to pass the memo along to the Golden Rams, who snagged their second PSAC title in five seasons in a 9-7 win over a Millersville team which not only was ranked first in the NCAA’s third and final Atlantic Regional Rankings, but also ranked as the number one team in the nation in the most recent National College Baseball Writers Association poll.
This is why games are played on grass (or as was the case in Butler, field turf) and not on paper.
“The PSAC is a top notch conference nationally and when you come to the PSAC Tournament, we know that we have to perform to win the championship,” said West Chester left fielder Drew Diehl.
Here are five takeaways from the PSAC baseball championship game.
1. Drew Diehl is in Beast Mode
West Chester left fielder Drew Diehl receives the 2016 PSAC Tournament MVP award from PSAC Associate Commissioner Will Adair on May 11, 2016 at Kelly Automotive Park in Butler, Pa. (Creighton Rabs/HERO Sports)
Diehl entered the tournament hitting .361 with seven home runs and 31 RBI. By the time the Golden Rams left Butler, Diehl, who went 10-for-19 (.526) in the tournament with a home run and five RBI while scoring six runs en route to earning Tournament MVP honors.
“He’s been steady for us,” said West Chester head coach Jad Prachniak. “He provides us some power at the top of the order. He’s essentially been a catalyst for our offense all season and he did it again this weekend.”
Diehl certainly provided that spark in the bottom of the first of West Chester’s 8-3 win over Seton Hill in the consolation final. The senior from Unionville, Pa. took Brandon Spak’s 2-0 pitch and sent it down the right field line and over the fence for a home run to give the Golden Rams a 1-0 lead.
After back-to-back walks by Nick Ward and Justin Roman, Shane Dressler launched a three-run shot that probably landed somewhere in Kittanning, chasing Spak after 25 pitches and no outs and giving West Chester a 4-0 lead.
“It was just one of those weekends where you just see it really well and everything just kind of clicks,” Diehl said.
That momentum carried over into the Millersville game. Despite striking out to lead off the game, Diehl stayed hot, as his one-out RBI single to right was part of a five-run second inning which gave the Golden Rams a 5-0 lead over Millersville. He would add a leadoff single in the top of the fourth and an RBI double down the right field line in the top of the fifth against the Marauders.
“It’s one of the best wins I’ve ever had, and we beat Tampa last year, so beating [Millersville} this year was a really awesome win,” Diehl said.
2. West Chester’s Pitchers Hold the Fort
Millersville left fielder Jeremy Musser swings at a pitch from West Chester reliever Josh McClain during the 2016 PSAC Championships on May 11, 2016 in Butler, Pa. (Creighton Rabs/HERO Sports)
Heading into the PSAC Tournament, freshman Michael Dietz had exactly one career appearance in a Golden Rams uniform. Dietz started West Chester’s 2-1 win over BR-252 USciences in the Bill Giles Invitational Championship game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on April 27, throwing four innings while striking out two and allowing four hits to earn his first career win.
It’s fair to say that was a little more at stake in Dietz’s second career start, which happened to be for the PSAC championship.
“To see him get that start and really excel was awesome,” Diehl said. “After we lost [senior pitcher Joe] Gutowski earlier in the season with a head injury, we’ve really been looking for another pitcher to step up.”
Although Dietz lasted just 3 2/3 innings, he didn’t allow an earned run (the Marauders scored on a fielding error by the third baseman in the bottom of the fourth) and set up senior Mike O’Neill’s three inning middle relief appearance.
“I was just thankful for the opportunity to even pitch and once I got out there, I just wanted to pound the zone and make them hit me,” Dietz said. “I ended up walking a few guys, but guys made plays behind me. That’s how it’s been all year, and they’ve always had my back.”
After O’Neill (4-2) surrendered five runs during this three inning stretch, Josh McClain, who threw 37 pitches in 3 2/3 innings in the Seton Hill game to earn his eighth save of the season, closed out the final 2 1/3 innings by throwing 38 pitches.
“We ran him back out there after pitching in game one, and because we play conference doubleheaders, it’s something that we have done during the regular season,” Prachniak said of McClain. “We don’t do it a lot, but occasionally a situation comes up for it. He said his arm felt great and we rode him there to the end.”
3. Patience at the Plate? Not So Much
West Chester players hoist the PSAC Baseball Championship trophy at Kelly Automotive Park in Butler, Pa. on May 11, 2016. (Creighton Rabs/HERO Sports)
The one thing that stood out about West Chester’s performance at the plate, especially through the first five innings was how quick the Golden Rams were to pounce on Millersville starter Reid Anderson (8-1), who suffered his first loss of the season, and reliever Logan Grant.
Of the 12 Golden Rams hits in the first five innings, nine of them were on the first or second pitches of the at bat, including five first-pitch hits.
“Guys were just geared up knowing that Anderson’s stuff is pretty good,” Prachniak said. “If you get deep in the count, I think you can run into trouble. But we didn’t go out of our way to say we’re going to swing at early pitches no matter what. It just happened that way.”
After recording 20 hits in the first three games of the PSAC tourney, the Golden Rams knocked out 23 hits in Wednesday’s two games combined.
“We’ve have a lot of time and we’ve been good about getting in the cage and honing in on what we’re seeing,” Diehl said. “We led off with a lefty today [Spak] and third base coach [Ross Trachtenberg] threw batting practice. Then, we jumped in before the Millersville game and had one of our bench guys who throws pretty hard throw batting practice. We really had to ramp up the batting practice to get ready.”
Anderson, who had drawn several major league scouts to Butler, didn’t appear ready for the offensive onslaught, as he surrendered 11 hits and seven earned runs in 4 1/3 innings in the loss to West Chester.
4. Tough Day at the Office For Marauders
You know it’s going to be a long day when your starter gets knocked out before the fifth inning. And when your second leading hitter follows up a pair of dominating performances at the plate with a pair of duds, the day gets even longer. And let’s not overlook a costly baserunning blunder, a controversial call at the plate and four double plays.
It was that kind of day for a team which looked poised to run West Chester down Route 8 and onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike before the last notes of the national anthem were played.
First baseman Drew Stoltzfus, the team’s second leading hitter (.415), went a combined 7-for-10 with 12 RBIs and didn’t strike out in the Marauders’ first two wins in Butler. The last two games were a different story, as Stoltzfus only mustered one hit in nine at-bats while striking out three times.
And then, there was a rally-killing baserunning adventure in the bottom of the fifth.
With one out, Ben Snyder hit a rocket down the left field line that hit a couple feet below the top of the wall. Although Snyder appeared to run hard out of the box, the runner ahead of him, Jeremy Musser (whose RBI single to right center cut the West Chester lead to 7-3), appeared to presume that Snyder’s shot had cleared the wall. Musser, who would score on the ensuing play (more on that in a moment), ended up at third.
David Summerfield’s sacrifice fly to left would score Musser to make it 7-4, but Snyder got a little greedy and broke for third. Diehl’s throw from left was cut off by O’Neill, who chased Snyder back towards second before throwing it to second baseman Joe Sheeran, who tagged Snyder out between second and third for one of four Millersville double plays on the afternoon.
Our guys turned some tough double plays, and the quirky tag-up one also,” Prachniak said. “But still, we have to execute that, hit a cutoff guy and finish the rundown and the guys did a good job with that. That’s the thing with baseball, if you can get some double plays and balls hit at people, it can change the course of the game.”
But, the worst was yet to come for the Marauders.
After hitting two straight West Chester batters and with Dressler at the plate in the top of the seventh, Grant unleashed a wild pitch that went to the right of catcher Mitch Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus retrieved the ball and threw it to Grant covering the plate. Clay Harwick appeared to have touched home plate before being tagged and was ruled safe.
Millersville head coach Jon Shehan stormed out of the dugout to argue the call and was ultimately ejected from the game. The Golden Rams would add another run in the frame to take a 9-4 lead.
Shehan did not speak to reporters after the game.
5. History Favored West Chester
— Creighton Rabs (@RabsReporter) May 11, 2016
West Chester made their third appearance in the PSAC Championship game in the past five seasons, winning beating Kutztown for the title in 2012 but losing to East Stroudsburg in 2013. Wednesday’s win marked the ninth conference pennant in program history.
The last time the Golden Rams won the PSAC title, they parlayed that win into a national championship run, the first NCAA D2 baseball title won by a team from the East or Atlantic regions. Only one player, redshirt senior catcher Tyler Coleman, remains from that 2012 national championship squad.
“I just want each team to create its own identity,” Prachniak said. “This team has done a good job of creating its own identity. We’re not flawless, but we do a lot of things well. The guys stay the course, they do a good job of handling the ups and downs of the game and go on to the next play. That’s one of the similarities with this group.”
Overlooked in the hot runs down the stretch by Millersville and Mercyhurst is the fact that, since splitting a four-game series with Kutztown at the end of March, the Golden Rams are on a 22-3 run, including their PSAC tournament run.
“We’ve been clicking top to bottom,” Diehl said. “If the top [of the order isn’t] producing, then the bottom’s producing and if the bottom’s not producing, the top’s producing. And on a really great day, everybody is producing.”
That’s not to say West Chester fans should book their tickets to Cary, N.C. just yet.
“It’s in our heads, we don’t talk about it much, but we all have that same goal,” Dietz said of the Golden Rams’ title dreams. “Coach keeps saying we have more to do, and the whole team agrees with that.”
For West Chester, the wait is on before Selection Sunday, when they’ll find out where they’re seeded and whom they will face in next week’s Atlantic Regionals.
“We’re excited to win the championship, but at the same time there’s no carryover,” Prachniak cautioned. “We just need to play good baseball at the regional if you want to advance there.”