JOHNSONBURG – Call it sweet redemption for Johnsonburg right fielder Kyle Sheldon.
After three hard hit balls right at the Port Allegany defense, including one with the bases loaded to end the inning, Sheldon went from goat to hero with one swing of the bat, a timely 2-run walk-off single to center field in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat the visiting Gators, 7-6.
"Kyle Sheldon hit the ball unbelievably hard [Thursday night] three times right at somebody," Johnsonburg head varsity baseball coach Jeff Peterson said. "That's big time for him, a huge confidence builder this late in the season."
Facing a 6-3 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Rams were able to put two aboard as shortstop Mitchell Holmberg singled to left field and third baseman Quinn Luhr followed with a walk.
Up to that point, Port Allegany starting pitcher Garrett Drabert had frustrated the Rams' bats, giving up three runs on four hits. Drabert also issued six free bases and hit one batter but was able to get out of a bases loaded jam Thursday night.
With two aboard with no outs, Drabert was lifted in favor of starting shortstop Sam Kysor; the relief pitcher was also the heart of the Gator offense Thursday night, going 2-for-3 with a double, two runs scored, and an intentional walk to his credit.
Kysor was lights out in the batter's box but lackluster on the hill in relief.
Johnsonburg center fielder CJ Herbsritt was struck by a full count pitch to load the bases and second baseman Frank Kocjancic capped off a 3-hit night with a single to right field to bring in Holmberg and Luhr to cut the lead to 6-5 with runners at first and second.
"Frank Kocjancic came through big for us a couple times," coach Peterson said. "When [Kysor] came in and started throwing fastballs, that's our strong point and I was better with that than the curveballs and breaking balls."
The comeback continued as first baseman Taylor Feronti hit a sharp grounder back to the mound; the ball ricocheted off Kysor's leg and rolled toward the third base line to load the bases again.
After being robbed of a hit in the second inning as right fielder Chad Gaines made a diving grab and again in the bottom of the fourth as center fielder Matt Bodamer made a sliding catch, Sheldon finally delivered, slapping a Kysor pitch into center field to score Herbstritt and Kocjancic for a 7-6 win.
"We're never out of a game, even down by three runs our players still believed they could win," coach Peterson said. "All we had to do was get one runner on and it went from there, and those runs at the end came from the middle to the bottom of the batting order, and that's what we've been looking for. That's off a quality pitcher who was throwing hard."
Peterson didn't have his best stuff Thursday night, walking four batters but only giving up four hits, a single and a double to Kysor and singles to third baseman Chris Lashway.
Second baseman Charlie Buchanon worked a full count walk to lead off the first inning and after a 5-3 groundout from Bodamer moved the runner to second, an uncharacteristic wild pitch moved the runner to third. Kysor followed with his first hit of the game, a double down the left field line for an early 1-0 lead.
First baseman Rick Bova struck out swinging but the dropped third strike allowed Kysor to move to third base with two outs. After left fielder Cory Burr walked to put runners at the corners, Peterson's pickoff throw to first base was high and sailed over Feronti's head, allowing Kysor to score for a 2-0 lead. Burr moved to second on the play and later moved to third after a Lashway single to shallow right field.
With runners at the corners again, Lashway stole second base before Peterson got mound opponent Drabert to strike out swinging.
The Rams were able to cut the lead in half in the bottom of the first inning. Catcher Cameron Grumley walked, stole second base, then advanced to third on a wild pitch during Holmberg's first at bat of the game. Holmberg popped up a bunt attempt back to the catcher to ice Grumley at third.
Luhr, coming off a 3-for-3 performance Wednesday against Curwensville, kept the drive alive with a single to bring in Grumley to trim the margin to 2-1. Herbstritt represented Drabert's second walk of the game but after a double steal to move the runners into scoring position, Kocjancic struck out looking to leave two runners aboard.
Peterson retired the side in the top of the second but the Rams failed to take advantage of walks in the home half.
With two outs on the board, left fielder Devon Zilcofski and Peterson both walked before Grumley hit a fly out to left to end the threat.
Peterson ran into more trouble in the top of the third inning. Bodamer hit into a 4-3 groundout to start but Kysor continued to produce with a single to center field. Kysor followed with a stolen base and moved to third on a 4-3 groundout from Bova for out No. 2.
With Kysor knocking on the door and Peterson looking for a strikeout, Burr worked to a full count before getting a free pass to put runners on the corners. Lashway followed with his second single of the game to score Kysor to take a 3-1 lead. Peterson again regrouped to get Drabert swinging to end the top of the third inning.
Johnsonburg took advantage of a fielding error in the home half of the third inning as Lashway mishandled a sharp grounder from Holmberg to put the leadoff man aboard. Holmberg followed with a stolen base but was frozen on a 6-3 groundout by Luhr. A wild pitch would later move Holmberg to third base before Herbstritt hit a popup to Gaines in right field, too shallow to try to score.
Kocjancic, however, hit the ball far enough for a run-scoring double to cut the lead back down to one run again. A 4-3 groundout from Feronti would end the inning.
Peterson regained his masterful form in the top of the fourth and fifth innings, setting down six batters, two on strikeouts. The Rams went down in order in the home half of the fourth inning but were able to knot the score in the bottom of the fifth.
Holmberg reached on an error at shortstop with one out. The grounder was fielded but the throw from Kysor to first base was in the dirt. After Luhr hit a fly out to left field, Herbstritt was struck by a pitch to put two aboard.
Kocjancic came through in the clutch again, this time frustrating Drabert with a single to center field to bring in Holmberg and tie the game at 3-3. Herbstritt moved to third on the play and Feronti worked a walk to load the bases. Looking to break open the floodgates, Sheldon instead slapped a sharp grounder right at Lashway, who cleanly fielded the ball and tapped third base for the third out.
The top of the sixth inning nearly spoiled the Rams' undefeated streak which now stands above the competition at 16-0.
With Holmberg swapping positions with Peterson, the junior struggled with control off the mound and walked Burr to lead off the inning. Lashway followed with a bunt to move the runner to second. Drabert was next and delivered a bouncing grounder in the infield; Feronti misplayed the ball as the Rams' defense was unable to get an out, leaving runners on the corners with one out. Holmberg then issued a free pass to catcher Tyler Shaffer to load the bases, prompting another pitching change.
The coaching staff elected to put Peterson back on the mound but received unexpected results in return.
"We were a little bit shaky on defense and that probably wasn't Cole [Peterson's] best performance," coach Peterson said. "We're struggling with this mound, he rode high a lot, and just look at the hole on the mound. He wanted the ball, though, he wanted to come back in."
Gaines worked a full count against Peterson and was walked, bringing in Burr for a 4-3 lead.
Seeking to minimize the damage, Peterson got Buchanon to go down swinging for out No. 2.
Needing one more out to keep it a 1-run deficit, Bodamer cracked a hard grounder to Holmberg at shortstop; the throw back to first base was off the mark, scoring Drabert from third base. Shaffer had his wheels on from second base and was able to slip under Grumley's tag at home plate on the throw from Feronti at first base.
Now with a 6-3 lead with runners at the corners, Peterson issued an intentional pass to Kysor before getting a 6-3 groundout from Bova.
Zilcoski went down swinging in the bottom of the sixth inning before Peterson and Grumley both hit fly outs as the Rams were unable to ignite a rally. Peterson preserved any chance Johnsonburg would have of a comeback with a 1-2-3 top of the seventh, getting Burr and Drabert to stare at called third strikes to set up the theatrics that followed in the home half of the seventh inning.
"We had already had Cole [Peterson] go through a lot then unfortunately we had to put him back in again and we had a couple errors that killed us a little bit," coach Peterson said. "Port Allegany is a solid team and they're tough-- I knew they would be and I told our guys that we can't take them lightly, they're always tough against us. I told our players to play it like it's a playoff game and it was tough."
This year's Johnsonburg team is already drawing comparisons to the 2007 squad that finished the season 22-2 with a District 9 crown and a runner-up finish in the Class A state championship.
"One thing nice about it is I have the whole team back next year," coach Peterson said. "It's something to look at and build on but we want it now. This kind of stuff that happened here [comeback from a 3-run deficit] doesn't happen all the time.
"You can't afford to do that in a do-or-die game, it's go home or not and you can't keep doing that because you're going to get bit."