JOHNSONBURG – A 2-run shot to right field from sophomore starting shortstop Cole Peterson topped off a 6-run fourth inning as the Rams toppled Smethport 10-1 in the quarterfinals of the District 9 Class A baseball playoffs.
The win elevates the Rams' pristine record to 20-0 as No.1 seed Johnsonburg prepares for a semifinal matchup Tuesday at a site and time to be determined against Elk County Catholic, seeded No. 5 with a 15-5 mark. Two of those losses came against the Rams.
Although Johnsonburg's batters were set down early by Smethport starting pitcher Zach Smith in action Thursday, the Rams eventually figured him out.
Going into the bottom of the fourth inning in a 1-1 tie, mound opponent Mitchell Holmberg legged out an infield single as Dylan Mott's throw from third base was not in time. A grounder from Quinn Luhr to Kevin Lord at shortstop was mishandled, putting two aboard.
Johnsonburg center fielder CJ Herbstritt followed with a 2-run single to center field to take a 3-1 lead. Smethport center fielder Clay Schuler misplayed the ball in the outfield which allowed Herbstritt to advance to second base.
Smith seemed to regroup as he got Johnsonburg second baseman Frank Kocjancic to go down swinging but the third strike was dropped by catcher Ryan Stratton. The ball rolled to the back of the batting cage and Stratton's throw down the first base line was off the mark. The error allowed Herbstritt to score from second base for a 4-1 lead.
With Kocjancic safe on the play, the Rams came up with another timely hit, this one from first baseman Taylor Feronti, who slapped a Smith offering into right field. Kocjancic scored all the way from first on the play, giving the Rams a 5-1 advantage.
Feronti moved to second base on a wild pitch during left fielder Kyle Sheldon's at bat and later moved to third after the junior grounded into an unassisted out at first base.
With Feronti just down the third base line, designated hitter Devon Zilcoski went down swinging for the second out. That set the stage for Peterson who responded with the first home run of his baseball career.
"We had the big inning where everybody started hitting the ball a little bit, then Cole [Peterson's] home run there was the dagger, we needed a few more runs and we got it," said Johnsonburg head varsity baseball coach Jeff Peterson. "Smethport sure is a tough team, though, they're not a pushover by any means and the score doesn't show the type of team that they are.
"I think they're definitely better than what the score shows, plus they have some hitters but I think we made the defensive plays when they hit it right at us. That's been our thing, tough defense, minimal walks and trying to put the ball in play."
After Peterson's 2-run launch put the Rams ahead 7-1, Smith was lifted in favor of Schuler, who came in from center field.
Schuler let Johnsonburg catcher Cameron Grumley aboard on a base on balls but the relief pitcher got it back with a pickoff throw at first base to end the 3-error inning.
The Rams added three more insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth inning for a 10-1 lead. Feronti started off with a single to right field and Sheldon followed with an infield single near first base to put two on. After pinch hitter Dylan DeLong went down swinging, Peterson capped off his day with a double to straightaway center field, bringing in Feronti and Sheldon for a 9-1 lead. Peterson advanced to third base with the throw home from the outfield.
With one out on the board, Grumley hit a sacrifice fly to center field to bring in Peterson for a 10-1 lead. Peterson went 2 for 3 on the day with a home run, double, four RBI, and two runs scored. In two playoff games this season, the sophomore standout is 4 for 6 with three runs scored.
"I think we started to get a feel for [Zach] Smith there and it showed, we finally lit him up and hit the ball well," coach Peterson said. "We tried to work for runs earlier there but got picked off and the squeeze play was screwed up from the beginning. We bounced back from it, we played aggressively and tried to make things happen, and a lot of good things did happen."
Peterson walked to lead off the bottom of the first inning and, after stealing second base, he advanced to third on a wild pitch. Holmberg tried to lay to down a sacrifice bunt but the ball rolled quickly to Smith, who tossed it back to Stratton to gun down Peterson.
Luhr, the starting third baseman for the Rams, followed with a single to right field on a hit-and-run play, moving Holmberg all the way to third base. With two outs, Holmberg scored on a balk called on Smith on the mound. Herbstritt followed with a 4-3 groundout but the Rams had the early 1-0 lead.
Holmberg was on the hill Thursday afternoon and the pitcher responded with one of his best outings of the year, working four innings while scattering three hits and allowing only one run to come in.
He allowed Schuler to reach on a base on balls with one out in the top of the first inning and later Schuler stole second.
A 5-3 groundout from Smith moved Schuler over to third base as the Hubbers were knocking on the door early. Facing Stratton, Smethport's No. 4 hitter, the starting catcher slapped a Holmberg pitch into the hole but Peterson made a diving grab in the dirt and made the throw to Feronti at first base to save a run from being scored.
"Defensively, I think we played exceptional, we did really well," coach Peterson said.
Holmberg allowed a 1-out single to Mott in the top of the second inning. Looking to make something happen, Mott put on his wheels in a steal attempt but the throw from Grumley was misplayed as the ball rolled into the outfield. Mott tried to advance to third on the play but was gunned down as Herbstritt connected with Luhr who applied the tag for the out at third base.
Holmberg set down the side in the top of the third inning but found a little trouble in the fourth.
After Schuler popped up to Feronti in foul territory, Holmberg gave up back-to-back singles to Smith and Stratton. With two on and one out, first baseman Derek Morey hit a hard grounder to Peterson at shortstop. Looking for the double play, Peterson threw to Kocjancic at second base for the first out. Kocjancic's throw to Feronti was in the dirt. With Smith digging for third base on the play, the Smethport starting pitcher was able to help himself, tying the game at 1-1. Feronti's throw to Grumley at home was in the dirt and off the mark, allowing Morey to go all the way to third base on the play.
"That got a little bit sloppy there and I think Taylor [Feronti] got a little bit screwed up on that," coach Peterson said. "With the double play try, I think Cole [Peterson] should've stepped over to third base and then back to first, and I would've been happy with getting the lead runner.
"On the other hand, his initial reaction was we already have one out and the kids always look for the double play so that's their natural reaction. Either way, we bounced back from it."
With the potential go-ahead run at third base, Holmberg treated Mott to a full count walk to put runners at the corners. Second baseman Kenny Doutt followed with a liner back to the mound. The ball bounced off Holmberg in the chest area and rolled toward Kocjancic who fielded the ball and made the throw to first to escape further damage.
The Rams followed with their 6-run fourth inning before bringing Luhr to the mound. The relief pitcher allowed a 2-out single to Lord but the runner was later gunned down by Grumley on a stolen base try to end the top of the fifth inning.
Luhr got a 1-2-3 top of the sixth inning and the Rams added three insurance runs in the home half of the inning. After consecutive singles to Doutt and designated hitter Ryan Corbett, Luhr settled down to get a 5-3 groundout from right fielder Karl Lightner to end the game.
"I thought we had the team to do it, it's just seeing what team shows up," coach Peterson said regarding his team's 20-0 mark. "We've had a lot of close games and we've shown some character in some comeback wins.
"It was never a goal to be undefeated, the goal was what we're doing right now, win a couple times in the playoffs. Being 20-0 doesn't mean anything if you lose in the first or second round."
The Rams will now start with a fresh pitching rotation next week as they're scheduled for a quarterfinal matchup against Elk County Catholic. The Rams own two wins over the Crusaders this season, a 7-0 win April 2 in St. Marys and a 1-0 victory May 1 in Johnsonburg. Peterson was the winning pitcher in both games with 14 shutout innings to his credit against ECC.