By John Knebels
Photos & Video By Donna Eckert, Alex Duda & Mark ZImmaro.
PHILADELPHIA – Bases loaded . . . down three runs . . . two strikes . . . teammates nervously standing side by side along the dugout railing . . . nail-biting fans on their feet . . . season on the line.
Baseball players young and old fantasize about it. Probably 99 percent of them never get to actually experience it.
Joey Gale is among the one percent who has.
In a Philadelphia Catholic League quarterfinal playoff on May 22, the Archbishop Wood sophomore smashed a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the seventh to propel the Vikings to a storybook 6-5 victory over a thoroughly distraught seven-seed Father Judge.
The win avoided an enormous disappointment for the two-seed Vikings and advanced them to a PCL semifinal contest with visiting three-seed Neumann-Goretti 4:00 Wednesday.
“With two strikes, all I’m trying to do is put a ball in play,” said Gale. “The pitcher was throwing kinda hard, so I knew that if I just put my bat on it, it would go.”
A pair of hit batsmen, a fielder’s choice, and a single set up the moment. Gale took a first-pitch strike. He fouled off the next pitch. And the next. And the next. Then he took a called ball.
Gale stepped out of the box.
“I love those moments,” he said. “I told myself, ‘With two strikes, there’s no way I’m striking out. I’m ending this.’ I was sitting fastball. He threw me a fastball, and that was the game.
“But couldn’t have done it without my teammates getting on. Even though I had the big hit, that was a team effort for the win.”
The looonnnng driiiive to left field took a while to land. As the Judge left fielder approached the fence, he looked to the sky. He was out of room.
Junior Aiden Myers, junior Mike Trommer, and senior Luke Cantwell (2 for 3, run scored, RBI) preceded Gale to home plate. Needless to say, Gale was mobbed by his delirious teammates who seconds earlier saw a season of incredible promise close to being reduced to rubble.
“The feeling is one like no other,” said Cantwell, who singled to load the bases and sprinted home after Gale’s homer. “I was pretty pumped up after Joey hit that ball. All around great team win. Might not have been the prettiest of games, but we got it done.
“It was truly a great piece of hitting by Joe. Really found a barrel and let his hands go to work. Joe has some serious power, so we all knew he had the chance to do it. Obviously, he did it.”
Wood coach Jim DiGuiseppe, Jr. was nearly speechless.
“It was certainly an exciting win for our team,” he said. “We always challenge the players to battle and compete until the end. I'm very proud of our determination today. To come back and win a game like that certainly ranks high up there. I'm just really happy that our kids get to continue competing in the PCL playoffs. They're a great bunch to coach.”
For Judge, junior John Westfield pitched six excellent innings (five hits, one earned run, two walks, seven strikeouts). Sophomores Jade DeLuca (home run in sixth) and Nick Schiffler each had two RBI's.
Cardiac Kids from South Philly
Neumann-Goretti has become accustomed to stress. In fact, the Saints seem to thrive on it.
After taking a 4-1 lead in the third inning, the Saints had to hold on to a one-run lead in the seventh, defeating visiting sixth-seed Bonner-Prendergast, 4-3, to move to a semifinal match at two-seed Archbishop Wood 4:00 Wednesday.
It marked N-G’s third one-run victory in their last four games and extended their winning streak to seven.
“We’re used to it because there are a lot of good teams in the league,” said senior Kevin Opanel. “We are always on the same page. We win together and lose together. We are at our highest right now.”
Opanel fired 6.1 strong innings, striking out eight before giving way to Jayce Park for a two-out save. Damian Suarez (2 for 4), Devon Koger, Lou Delbrocco, and Jimmy Gallo each knocked in runs for the Saints; the last three represented the bottom of the Neumann-Goretti order.
They contributed mightily.
“Our whole lineup is a bunch of aggressive hitters who want to hit the ball every at bat,” said Opanel. “It’s so cool being able to put the Neumann Goretti baseball name out there to show people how we are on the field and as a brotherhood. We come and play hard every day, and we give 110%.”
For Bonner-Prendergast, RBIs came from Kevin Heinrich, Ryan Kearney, and Joe Demucci.
The Tide is Definitely NOT Receding
Devon Prep was lost. A 1-5 start did not bode well for a possible future playoff for the Tide.
“In the beginning of the season, a lot of us had high hopes for this season since it was our first season back since winning the state championship,” said senior Paul Grycewicz, referring the Devon’s amazing PIAA Class 2 title in 2019. “After the first few games, we had to change our mindset of executing on short term instead of thinking long term.”
The Tide have won eight straight – five against playoff teams. Their latest success, a 2-1 pitchers’ duel over four-seed St. Joseph’s Prep in Saturday’s PCL quarterfinal, elevated five-seed Devon to a semifinal meeting at top-seed LaSalle 4:00 Wednesday.
“As the season progressed, everything started to click for us,” said Grycewicz. “Just like two years ago, the team as a whole has a feeling that we’re unstoppable. We’re always the underdogs and overlooked by other teams, but we love it. No one wants it more than us.
“We’ll have to play our best game Wednesday against LaSalle because they’re a very well respected team in the league, but again, there’s not a team in the league we think we can’t beat right now. As a whole, we’re very excited to play and to compete at our highest level.”
The Tide eliminated a 1-0 deficit with two runs in the second. A steal of home by Mason Lindley and an RBI by freshman Joe Ficoturo gave them a 2-1 lead. With senior star hurler Jack Eshleman on the mound, the Tide maintained their lead the rest of the way.
Eshleman allowed only two hits, three walks, and an earned run while striking out seven. Junior Jake Kenney notched the save with a four-pitch fly-out.
“It’s amazing,” said Eshleman. “Starting off 1-5 in the beginning was a little rough. We knew we were better than that and wanted to prove it. Everyone has put in a lot of hard work, and now everything is clicking. Hopefully we are still able to continue our run.
“We all knew that this stretch was going to happen, but we just had to stay patient. If one person gave up, we would not be where we are right now.”
Senior Vaughn Brogan agrees.
“It’s been awesome, especially from where we started,” said Brogan. “Starting out 1-5 in the Philadelphia Catholic League and ending up 8-5 to end the regular season, and now in the PCL semifinal. As soon as we lost to Neumann Goretti (3-1 on April 26), a switch flicked, and we started hitting the ball better and overall playing better as a team.”
Senior Eamonn Walsh likes what he sees.
“During the beginning of the season, we as a team we weren’t winning many games and weren’t executing things very well,” said Walsh. “As the season progressed, we started to click and play together. The past month we’ve been playing like a championship team. Our pitching, fielding, and at bats have improved dramatically since the beginning of the season.
“Credit to our entire coaching staff on having us prepared for every game and every situation needed. There’s not a lot of teams that thought we were gonna be in spot we are in right now, but that’s credit to us and our hard work.”
Game Basically Over After One Inning
In an 18-0 quarterfinal win over overwhelmed eight-seed Lansdale Catholic, La Salle’s offense was beyond reproach.
With nine different players knocking in runs – among them seniors Joe Cattie (four RBI, home run), Eric Shandler (three RBI), and Dan Wagner (three RBI) – the Explorers scored 12 in the first and six more in the second.
They will face red-hot five-seed Devon Prep in the semifinals 4:00 Wednesday at home.
“We emphasize playing one game at a time,” said La Salle senior Jake Whitlinger. “Playoffs are win or go home, so playing with the mentality that each game could be our last makes sure we’re not taking any plays for granted.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)