By Rich Rhoades
PUNXSUTAWNEY — For Brandon Schlimm and the Elk County Crusaders, it’s time to make travel plans to Penn State University Friday afternoon.
Main Campus, that is. Time: 3:30 p.m. Opponent: Devon Prep.
On the strength of the senior right-hander’s four-hitter and 11 strikeouts, the now 26-0 Crusaders punched their ticket to the PIAA Class A Championship game at Medlar Field with a 1-0 win over District 6 champion Bishop McCort.
“I knew we had potential, but I didn’t know we’d run the string,” Crusaders head coach Father Eric Vogt said. “It’s tough to do that in any sport. We’re going to give it heck and go at (Devon Prep).”
Schlimm also helped produce the game’s only run in the fourth inning when his two-out triple got things going, setting up Josh Zelinski’s run-scoring single that drove in courtesy runner Mitchell Struble.
That was all Schlimm needed to squeeze out his 119-pitch shutout despite having runners on base in all but one inning. The Crimson Crushers (19-8) stranded eight runners with three of them at third base, including one in the seventh inning when Schlimm whiffed mound opponent Brad Coleman to end the game.
“That was our goal,” Schlimm said of reaching the state finals. “We had a great team last year and had a tough loss in the first round. To come this year and play as well as we have is great.”
Schlimm would be available to pitch Friday.
“We’ll see how it feels,” said Schlimm, who improved to 11-0 and lowered his earned run average to 0.98 with 125 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go another seven, but hopefully be able to throw a few innings.”
Crusaders head coach Father Eric Vogt saw his ace pitcher rise to the occasion.
“The more he pitches the stronger he gets,” Vogt said. “His fastball got a little better as he went on and got into it. When you’re that thin and don’t have a lot of muscle, sometimes your body just has to get into a rhythm and he just did it.”
McCort’s Coleman was the hard-luck loser on the mound, tossing a six-hitter with seven strikeouts and just one walk. He threw 82 pitches, 60 of them for strikes. He was making his sixth straight postseason start, although he hadn’t finished all of those starts.
Going into the bottom of the fourth, the Crusaders had two hits — a first-inning Brad Dippold single and a third-inning bunt single by Vincent Jacob — with two other runners reaching on infield errors. And the fourth started harmless enough with two quick flyouts by Dan Singer and Jonathan Dippold.
But Schlimm ripped a drive into right-center where McCort centerfielder Nemo Trexler made what appeared to be an outstanding diving catch. However, the ball popped out of his glove when he hit the ground and Schlimm was able to reach third with a triple.
“I wasn’t much of a hitter last year at all, but this year, I found my stick,” said Schlimm, who went into the game batting .396.
After Struble replaced Schlimm as a courtesy runner, the left-handed Zelinski sliced a liner to left to score Schlimm.
The Crusaders got a second single from Dippold in the fifth inning, but stranded him at second and after Schlimm singled in the sixth for his second hit, courtesy runner Struble was stranded at second.
Meanwhile, McCort couldn’t get a runner to home plate, with its best chances coming in the first and third innings.
In the first, Schlimm struggled throwing strikes and walked two of the first three batters. With runners at first and third, the Crushers tried a delayed double steal of home, but the Crusaders sniffed it out and perfectly executed their defense in nailing Trexler at the plate.
After stranding runners at second and third in the second inning, McCort had runners on first and second with two outs in the third with No. 5 hitter Ethan Neiderhiser at the plate. Following a Neiderhiser foul ball, Schlimm had the ball on the mound and turned to fire the ball to second to try to get courtesy runner Zef Leech. The ball went into center field and Leech went around to score when centerfielder Jacob misplayed the overthrow.
But, from the outset, the home plate umpire was waving the play dead because he hadn’t made the ball live, which is usually indicated by pointing to the pitcher after he gets the ball.
“I never saw his arm go down,” Vogt said. “He never pointed to the pitcher to put the ball in play, so he made the right call. … That was big.”
Bishop McCort head coach Chris Pfeil wasn’t as agreeable with the call.
“We have to live with the call, but that’s a 10-12 second sequence for the pitcher to take a sign, come set, check the runner back and make a pickoff move,” Pfeil said. “He says he didn’t put the ball back in play. We have to live with that, but I’m not sure why the ball would not be in play. The unfortunate thing about that is that the centerfielder misplayed the ball and we’re probably standing there with a 1-0 lead and a guy on third.
“It’s disappointing, but you have to overcome calls. That’s a big call, but you have to overcome that. We had opportunities in six innings to get a hit to change the complexion of the game. Sometimes, the calls don’t go in your favor and that’s certainly a big one.”
In the fifth with a runner at second and one out, No. 3 hitter Nathan Neiderhiser smoked a hard shot at second baseman Dippold, who knocked the ball down and got the out. With a runner at third and two outs, Schlimm struck out cleanup hitter Alex Sobecky to end the inning.
The final threat from McCort came in the seventh when No. 9 hitter Cameron Rock doubled with one out and advanced to third on Trexler’s flyout to right field. But Schlimm ended it all with a strikeout of Coleman.
“It was frustrating,” Pfeil said of his team’s missed scoring chances. “We just needed to get one more ball in play. We had num opportunities and there’s not a lot you can do. You have to give the kid credit. He made the pitches. They worked us away and we weren’t able to get a bat on it. We tried to talk to the guys, hoping somebody could poke one the other way and get one through.”
Meanwhile, the Crusaders are happy with their one run that got them one win closer to a state title.
“We’re looking forward to Friday. My kids are really excited,” Vogt said.