PINE GROVE, PA – Runners occupied first and second with no outs in the home fourth. The game – and season – was teetering toward disaster in this, the PIAA Class 2A baseball state semifinal June 11 at perfectly manicured Walter Stump Stadium.
Then Devon Prep’s Andrew Czachor traded his dusty uniform for a Superman cape.
Strolling from shortstop to the mound, the senior took the ball from coach Mark Aquilante. Seventeen pitches and three strikeouts later, Czachor returned to the dugout and received congrats from his thoroughly relieved – but hardly surprised – teammates and coaches.
Less than an hour later, Czachor jumped high in the air and was immediately tackled by his Tide brethren after his 51st pitch was swung at and missed, securing District 12-champ Devon’s 3-1 victory over District 4-winner South Williamsport.
“I love that high pressure situation,” said Czachor. “I feel like I’m the guy to go to.”
No one would dispute that assessment.
Czachor defined the word “dominant.” In his four innings, he faced a dozen batters, and he retired all 12 – including nine via strikeout. He whiffed the initial five and two of the next four.
With an impressive turnout of Devon Prep faithful becoming louder as the seventh inning commenced, Czachor induced a lazy pop out to senior shortstop Aaron Nuble on the first pitch for the first out.
He proceeded to bury the final two hitters without surrendering as much as a foul tip. After a strike-one call, he fired five more pitches – all swings and misses.
Devon’s trip to Friday’s 4:30 state championship versus District 7 runner-up Serra Catholic (23-3 record) at Penn State University was secured.
“We play in probably the toughest baseball league in the state,” said Aquilante, whose Tide joined the Catholic League this spring. “The regular season is to get us ready for the end of the season and the playoff games.
“The kids take that in. We lose a game during the regular season, nobody is throwing chairs around or any of that kind of stuff.”
The Tide (11-13 and on a five-game winning streak) staked a 1-0 lead in the second when sophomore Eamonn Walsh was hit by a pitch and hustled to third after senior Matt Romano dropped a bunt single. Junior Kevin Walton then pushed a perfect suicide squeeze bunt up the first-base line to score Walsh.
Sophomore starting pitcher Bere Bauers surrendered a tying run in the second and benefitted from an adeptly executed six-four-three double play that ended the third.
South Williamsport (18-5) put its first two runners on in the fourth, and despite Bauers (three innings, four hits, one run, one walk, five strikeouts) pitching fine but arguably a tad fatigued, Czachor was summoned in from shortstop to begin his masterful performance.
The Tide, however, still needed to find some offense.
“We’re not going to beat anybody up,” said Aquilante. “We don’t have that kind of team. We need to have a good approach at the plate.”
Devon did just that in the sixth.
Nuble led off with a ground single to center. Czachor then ripped a double to put runners on second and third. Junior Jackson Jonik carried some unwanted baggage – two straight strikeouts – when he entered the spotlight.
“My prior at bats, I was a little late and I had to make some adjustments,” said Jonik. “Going into that at bat, I knew we had a lot on the line. We had to score that run.”
Three pitches later, Jonik lifted a fly ball to left field, and it was plenty deep enough to score Nuble from third with the coveted lead run. When senior Pat Coleman singled home an insurance run, Devon Prep’s 3-1 lead might have well been 13-1 with the way Czachor was dealing.
“I saw what I had to do and I just made the adjustment,” said Jonik. “I got out in front and put it in play, and that’s all we needed.”
Even with a narrow one-run lead, the Tide sensed certain victory.
“It’s a great feeling having that security knowing we have a pitcher who can go out there and stop them with the lead,” said Jonik.
Devon Prep’s starting lineup – nine position players and one designated hitter – featured four seniors, four sophomores, and two juniors.
Aquilante credited the team’s five upperclassmen for their season-long leadership and penchant for keeping the younger players level. Jonik concurred.
“It leads to a great bonding experience because we have all these different grades,” said Jonik. “We all work together. It’s really a team effort. It’s all about the energy in the dugout. We are all there for each other. It’s really a brotherhood. We support each other. We pick up each other when we need it.”
Czachor reflected on how the season began and the lengths the Tide have traveled ever since.
“The first game at O’Hara (a 14-2 loss), nobody would have expected us to be here,” said Czachor. “How hard we worked and how we just formed as a team is just unbelievable to see.
“Knowing we could handle those pitchers in the PCL that are throwing the same, if not faster, velocity that we saw today. Hearing the (miles per hour) of the pitcher – I think it was 89 that he topped out at – nobody even flinched. We were ready.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)