JOHNSONBURG – It wasn't pretty but the Johnsonburg Rams extended their winning streak to 11-0 on the season with a 1-0 shutout win Tuesday over visiting Elk County Catholic (8-4).
The Rams combined three pitchers for seven innings of work and overcame six walks as they effectively scattered three hits while Johnsonburg pushed a run across in the second inning.
Johnsonburg starting pitcher Quinn Luhr, who was 2-for-2 on the day with a walk and a run scored, led off the bottom of the second inning with an infield single to ECC shortstop Dan Singer to put a runner aboard with no outs.
Jack Herzing, starting pitcher for ECC, followed with a walk to Johnsonburg right fielder CJ Herbstritt and a wild pitch moved the runners into scoring position with no outs. Herzing followed with a walk to Johnsonburg third baseman Frank Kocjancic to load the bases.
Taylor Feronti, the starting first baseman for the Rams, hit a groundout to second base as ECC took the force play but Luhr crossed home plate to score what would turn out to be the lone run.
"In the second inning when we had guys on base, I take the heat for that inning because I probably messed up," said Jim Holmberg, one of the coaches on the Johnsonburg varsity baseball coaching staff. "I should've tried to be more aggressive and maybe try to squeeze in a run there.
"I was hoping that with the bases loaded there we could break it out early because we haven't been hitting well and I thought maybe this would be the game that the kids would be pumped up for, but the bats didn't happen."
With runners on the corners with only one out, left fielder Kyle Sheldon and right fielder Dylan DeLong both went down swinging, two of Herzing's seven strikeouts on the day.
"Jack [Herzing] has pitched extremely well these last couple of games, we just have to figure out a way to get him some run support," said ECC varsity baseball coach Tom Zampogna. "There's not a whole lot you can say about a game like that."
Herzing enjoyed three 1-2-3 innings but the Crusaders could not get any runs across.
With Luhr on the hill, ECC catcher Vincent Jacob, who was 1-for-1 on the day with two walks, got his first free pass of the day as the leadoff hitter. A bunt from ECC second baseman Pat Brennen moved the runner to second base but Luhr got Singer and ECC center fielder Ivan Wortman to hit into consecutive 5-3 groundouts to strand the runner. The Crusaders left seven runners on base while Johnsonburg stranded six.
After Herzing set down the top three in the lineup in order, ECC was in business again in the top of the second inning as right fielder Joe McLaughlin hit a sharp grounder to center field. However, McLaughlin was stranded as Luhr regrouped to get Herzing to pop out to center field for the first out of the inning. After catching left fielder Brock McCullough swinging, third baseman Ben Cortina also popped up to center field.
Facing a 1-0 deficit entering the top of the third inning, ECC first baseman Brandon Schlimm hit into a 5-3 groundout before Luhr issued his second free pass to Jacob. The speedy Crusader catcher stole second base during the next at-bat to get into scoring position but Luhr got Brennen to swing at strike three for the second out. A fly ball from Singer to the shortstop ended the threat.
Cole Peterson, who started the game at shortstop for Johnsonburg, led off the bottom of the third inning and ripped a double to right field, the only extra base hit of the game. A 5-3 groundout from catcher Cameron Grumley froze Peterson at second base and third baseman Mitchell Holmberg hit a popup to second base for the second out of the inning. After Luhr worked a walk off Herzing to put two aboard with two outs, Herbstritt hit a towering foul ball that was caught by ECC first baseman Brandon Schlimm.
Holmberg replaced Luhr on the hill in the top of the fourth inning and immediately ran into trouble. He started with a free pass to Wortman, who promptly stole second base to get into scoring position with no outs. After McLaughlin struck out swinging, Herzing worked a free pass off his mound opponent. With one out, ECC left fielder Brock McCullough tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt but instead hit a soft popup to a charging Holmberg. After issuing his third walk of the inning, this time to ECC third baseman Ben Cortina, Schlimm popped up to third base as ECC left the bases loaded.
"Defensively, we played well but we left a lot of guys on base, guys on second base with one out, at least three times I think, and we left the bases loaded without getting a run across," coach Zampogna said. "Offensively, we need to improve a little bit. Johnsonburg played a good game as well, their pitchers did well, and so did Jack [Herzing]."
Herzing would retire the next six batters he faced in the fourth and fifth innings but the Crusader offense had little luck as well.
A leadoff single from Jacob again gave the Crusaders a glimmer of hope and Brennen laid down a bunt to put a runner into scoring position with one out. Holmberg, wild in the fourth inning, settled down nicely and got Singer to fly out to right field, although Jacob tagged up and headed to third.
With the tying run just down the third base line, Wortman rolled a soft groundout to Holmberg, who took the play himself for the unassisted out at first base.
After Herzing's 1-2-3 bottom of the fifth inning, Peterson came in for the kill and immediately delivered, striking out the side. McLaughlin and McCullough went down swinging and Herzing was caught looking at a third strike.
After Holmberg struck out to start the bottom of the sixth inning, Luhr hit a grounder to center field for a single and later stole second base on the ensuing at-bat, hoping to get an insurance run across for the Rams. Herbstritt worked his second walk of the day to put two aboard but Herzing buckled down to get Kocjancic and Feronti swinging.
Peterson began the top of the seventh inning with a strikeout to Cortina, the sophomore pitcher's fourth in a row. After a 5-3 groundout to ECC pinch hitter Shea Meyer for the second out of the inning, Jacob was walked on a full count pitch to give ECC one last shot to tie the game. With Brennen at bat and hoping to improve on his 0-for-3 showing, Grumley instead fired a throw to second base as Jacob broke for a steal. Holmberg, who had shifted to shortstop on the pitching change, charged in to catch the ball and tagged Jacob out to end the game.
"It was all pitching. [Jack] Herzing pitched a good game, kept us off balance the whole time but our pitchers did a good job, too, and Cole [Peterson] finished if off for us. It was all about pitching," coach Holmberg said. "The original plan for our pitching was to go three innings apiece for two pitchers then see where we were at-- if it was close we were bringing [Peterson] in but if we had a big lead we were going to throw somebody else.
"Unfortunately since the bats weren't working so well, we had to go with the second plan. With a 1-run lead, you have to take it however you can. We relied on the pitching and defense, and it's another big one for us. If you want to go far in the playoffs, these are the games that you have to have, you have to have these 1-run games. It's not going to hurt as at all learning how to play close games like this."