With two outs and the winning run on second against visiting Centennial Monday afternoon, Mt. Hebron coach Brian Culley finally felt like the baseball gods were smiling on him.
Despite hitting the ball hard for six innings, and getting a masterful performance from ace Mark Smith (7 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 12 K, 1 R, 0 ER), the Vikings were still clinging onto a 1-1 tie and about to head to extra innings
"Baseball is a funny game. We hit the ball really hard in the first couple of innings and had nothing to show for it," Culley said. "You start to see some of these things and think 'Maybe we're fighting a losing battle with the baseball gods.' "
But in the bottom of the seventh, after shortstop Ian Reid led off with a clean single on full count, and advanced to second on a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt by leadoff hitter Mike Lettieri, things began to look up for the Vikings, who had the heart of the order coming up.
No. 2 hitter Joey Trapuzzano popped out to first, but then Mt. Hebron had freshman Jack Schroeder — who drove in the Vikings' first run with a sac fly in the fifth — coming up.
Centennial coach Denis Ahearn opted to send Schroeder to first, setting up a force out at any infield base, but that only left the game in the hands of one of Mt. Hebron's most capable hitters: senior catcher Paul Lutchenkov, who promptly roped a sharp base hit through the left side of the infield, allowing Reid to easily score from second for the winning run.
"I knew we had to get it done to advance in this tournament, which is going to be pretty tough as is because of all the good teams playing. I just tried to put the bat to ball as best I could and it paid out and I was just exhilarated when it happened," said Lutchenkov, who came into this spring batting .462 (43/93) with 20 RBIs and 16 extra base hits in two varsity seasons. "I just knew I had to get it done for my team."
Mt. Hebron (10-7, 13-7) advances to host Long Reach — a 16-1 winner over Baltimore Polytechnic — on Wednesday in the 3A East regional semifinals. In Section II of the 3A East bracket, two-time county champion Atholton will host rival Reservoir, the county runner-up, on Wednesday. On Monday, Reservoir shut out Wilde Lake, while Atholton battled past scrappy Glenelg, 9-5. Check below for updates on the 2A and 4A fields.
At Mt. Hebron on Monday, the Vikings had to withstand several harrowing jams in the middle innings.
The Eagles took a 1-0 lead in the third when second baseman Zeke Maldonado hit a two-out single, advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt, then scored on a Connor Clemens single. Clemens then made it to third on an error and and stolen base, and Derek Nadeau got into scoring position on a walk and passed ball, but Smith got a big strikeout to end the threat.
In the fourth, Centennial loaded the bases with no outs on a Tyler Morris leadoff single, a Nick Varner bunt, and a Robby Miller walk, but two strikeouts around a failed suicide squeeze attempt ended that scoring opportunity.
Then in the sixth, Centennial loaded the bases again before recording an out on a Zeke Maldonado walk, and bunts by Clemens and Nadeau. But an infield fly, a strikeout and a comebacker erased that threat.
"When it got real tough I settled down and started making the pitches I needed to make," said Smith, who doubled to center to create the Vikings' scoring opportunity in the fifth. "I just had to trust myself, I just had to throw strikes...My arm feels stronger after every inning. It's really tight when I start games, but by the seventh inning, everything is loosened up and I'm able to hit my spots, so that was great."
Jorge Maldonado pitched a strong five innings for the Eagles, spreading out six hits and one walk and allowing only one run. Right fielder Robby Miller robbed Lutchenkov of an extra base hit with a falling catch in the fourth, and the David Phelps to Andrew Durkee to Nick Varner relay cut down a Mt. Hebron scoring opportunity at the plate to end the first inning.
"We just faltered. We had some key mistakes in the field that hurt us, some mental and some physical mistakes. Those things in a ball game like this make a difference," Centennial coach Denis Ahearn said. "My guys played hard, we just didn't execute when we needed to. I think it gives us a lot of hope for the future, this is a young team. It gives us something to build on. It should be motivation for next year."
C (7-10, 9-11) 001 000 0 - 1 5 1
MH (10-7, 13-7) 000 010 1 - 2 8 3
J. Maldonado, Nadeau (6) and Varner. Smith and Lutchenkov.
2B: MH — Smith.
Marriotts Ridge 9, Hammond 2
Atholton 9, Glenelg 5
Long Reach 16, Baltimore Polytechnic 1
Reservoir 10, Wilde Lake 0
Sherwood 4, Howard 2