HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Atholton right fielder and pitcher Tony Puciloski scrunched his nose, gave a stern look at his bat, and dug into the batter’s box. The journey to this point tested his focus, but all Puciloski eyed was the spread out Long Reach infield and the opportunity to finally put an end to this untidy game: tied up, bottom of the eighth inning, game-winning run on third base, full count, two outs.
Puciloski’s observation turned into walk-off jubilation, as he ripped the very next pitch through the hole to lift Atholton to an 11-10 comeback win at home.
“That was unbelievable,” said Puciloski, who finished 3-for-5 with three innings pitched in relief and allowed four runs — two earned — one hit, two walks and struck out four. “My goal was to hit it up the middle. Got a good pitch and did just that.”
Not long prior, in the top of the sixth inning, Puciloski surrendered two runs — a leadoff walk that scored on a Blake Sleischer RBI triple and an error that brought Sleischer home — that gave Long Reach an 8-6 lead. In the top of the seventh inning, Puciloski yielded two more runs in the wake of another error that later scored on a passed ball and walk that scored on a groundout. Though Puciloski only gave up one hit in the sixth and seventh innings, Long Reach pulled ahead, 10-6, as the bottom of the seventh awaited.
“You just got to shake it off and keep going with how I’m pitching, and that’s to get out of the inning,” Puciloski said. “We just have to stay focused on our main goals when we’re down. Even when we’re up we have to stay focused.”
The comeback bid didn’t start on script, as pinch-hitter Chris Bookter grounded out to lead off the inning. Jack Johnson injected life with a ground-rule double, and Atholton did just enough after that to force extras. Puciloski subsequently reached base on an infield single and Zach Geesaman brought two more runners home to make it 10-8 on a single. After an error allowed Geesaman to reach third base and now with two outs, Benji Thalheimer rocketed the game-tying, two-run triple into left field.
“Every time I step to bat, I just want to hurt the ball. I’m looking for that one pitch I can just hit. And that’s what I did,” said Thalheimer, who started the game on the mound and gave up four runs on five hits and two walks across four innings. He also struck out 10, mostly with his mid-80s four-seam fastball.
Puciloski went 1-2-3 in the top of the eighth inning before delivering his walk-off single. For the game, Atholton gave up just seven hits — two of them being infield singles — but allowed eight walks from innings four through seven. They also blew leads of 4-0 after two innings and 5-4 after four prior to stringing together one final push.
“Not our best defensive performance ... but this team has a lot of perseverance,” Atholton coach Jon Dupski said. “They’re resilient. We never believe a game is actually over until it’s over. And that’s the cool thing. I’ve seen a lot of teams I’ve coached give up. The care they have for each is outstanding.”
As for Long Reach, it falls to 2-3 on the season and was two outs away from picking up a quality, gritty win on the road. After falling behind by four runs early, the Lightning responded with four runs in the top of the third inning thanks in large part to Andy Lotz’s three-RBI triple. Lotz also came in relief in the second inning and pitched five solid frames to reel Long Reach back into contention, but it couldn’t close the deal.
“It was pretty frustrating. I don’t know how to describe it,” Long Reach coach Bryan Wyman said. “The energy, we were pretty defeated after that. ... We kept getting the lead and just couldn’t keep it. It was brutal. The message to the team was just keep fighting, put your best foot forward.”