J.M. Bennett pitcher Aaron Combs has been in more stressful situations than any he saw Friday at Atholton with the 3A East regional championship on the line. As a freshman, he came up to the varsity team and in the playoffs was thrust into a bases-loaded, two-out situation and got the final out to extend the Clippers’ season.
“Since then, he’s been our guy,” J.M. Bennett coach Jesse Serig said. “With him on the mound, we have a chance to compete against anybody.”
Stressful moments or innings were few and far between against the host Raiders in Columbia. Combs allowed just one run on six hits and walked one across seven strong innings to lead the Clippers to a 6-1 victory and their first regional title since going undefeated and winning their second straight 3A state title in 2012. It’s their 14th overall.
“This school’s program has a long reputation, so they’ve been here before. Me, personally, I’ve never been, so it’s huge,” said J.M. Bennett coach Jesse Serig. “We told these guys from the jump that they had a shot, that they were good, that they had to believe in themselves. Something turned right at the start of the playoffs and they’ve been money since then.”
As for Combs, he held Atholton (17-5) in check after giving up three of his hits and the only run against him in the first inning. He retired nine straight batters spanning the first and fourth innings and never faced more than four hitters in an inning after Tony Puciloski drove in the Raiders’ only run early on.
“He is our horse. He’s an amazing kid, he’s a great student and he deals, man,” Serig said.
While most teams have a courtesy runner of their catcher whenever he reaches base, J.M. Bennett has no such worry from its speedy catcher, Paul Oscar. He reached base in all four of his plate appearances and stole five bags in the game and at least one each time. He stole home twice — once in the third inning and again in the fifth — and scored on a wild pitch for the first run of the Clippers’ three-run seventh. Oscar finished the afternoon 1-for-2 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a game-high three runs scored.
“We have the luxury of having our fastest guy behind the plate,” Serig said. “Anytime he gets on he’s a threat. Their catcher is a stud and their pitcher was quick but we took some chances and moved him when we could.”
It was a frustrating day for the team on the other side. Only three of the six runs Atholton allowed were earned and the combination of starting pitcher Benji Thalheimer (5 IP, 3 BB, 2 H, 3 R, 2 ER) and relievers Brian Weinberg and Carson Collier held the Clippers to just three hits — all singles that barely left the infield.
A couple hit batters in the second, a single by Max Taylor and a wild pitch allowed two runs to score in the third inning, and Oscar scored in the fifth by reaching on an error. Another error with two outs in the top of the seventh allowed two more unearned runs to score and put the game out of reach.
“We definitely did not play our best game,” said Raiders coach Jon Dupski. “I was proud of all our pitchers but our defense — there were some bad hops but some errors, some mental and some physical. Their pitcher threw excellent and held us to that one run but as the game progressed he just kind of settled in and went to work.”
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Despite the loss, Dupski called the season a tremendous success. The rise of Thalheimer as one of Howard County’s best pitchers and a consistent lineup that was able to win nine games by two runs or fewer had the Raiders finish in second place in the league. Their six shutouts were the most in Howard County and twice as many as any other county team.
“I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished this season,” Dupski said. “Nobody had us in the top five and we ended up finishing second in the county. I think we got a lot from our seniors. Each one of them contributed and then we got a lot from Benji. I’m extremely proud of what we have and I think we have a lot moving forward. The juniors just have to come back and really own it next year.”
J.M. Bennett — 6, Atholton (17-5) — 1
3A East region championship
......... 123 456 7 R-H-E
JB ... 002 010 3 6-3-0
A ..... 100 000 0 1-6-2
La Plata — 16, Wilde Lake (5-16) — 0
2A South region championship