---- — By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
MIFFLINBURG -- Two of the Heartland Athletic Conference's more surprising teams played possibly the Valley's best game of the season to date Thursday.
If not the best, it was easily the most intense.
Nate Lynch broke a tie with the bases full and two outs in the last of the seventh inning. The Mifflinburg senior smashed a ball too hot for Lewisburg third baseman Jesse Flannery to spear with a lunge, and the umpire ruled his tag attempt of the runner from second base failed, allowing Brady Lloyd to score the game-winning run, 3-2, in the rivals' nonleague game.
Oakley Whitesel threw six shutout innings after a rough first, and the Wildcats won for the third time in four days.
"This is a game we would have lost last year," Mifflinburg coach Tom Church said. "This is one of those games where we didn't play very well again ... and we found a way to win. It's a step in the right direction, a good boost of confidence for the kids.
"That's the game we were looking for all year," said Lewisburg coach Kevin Kline. "Unfortunately a ball here or there, we win this game (or) a couple calls here or there. But overall ... it was a great game."
The Green Dragons (3-6, 1-5 HAC-II), trying to match last year's win total before the season's midpoint, led 2-0 after three of their first four batters had hits. Whitesel, a senior lefty, was coming off a five-inning no-hitter Monday against Hughesville, but that was a distant memory after Joey Gardner's two-run double to the gap in right-center field. A walk and a two-single forced Whitesel to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam to maintain the 2-0 deficit.
"I went in the dugout after the first inning and said, 'Oak, we've gotta keep these pitches down.' He goes, 'Yeah, I agree,'" said Mifflinburg catcher Andy Aurand. "He was definitely a different pitcher throughout the innings."
In his six scoreless frames, Whitesel threw 51 of 73 pitches for strikes, including first-pitch strikes to 19 of 24 batters. He struck out the side in the second, getting a called third-strike on the third out to keep runners at the corners. He also stranded a Dragon at third in the third inning.
That no doubt played into Kline's decision to try a delayed double-steal of home with two outs in the fifth. Andy Stanko broke from first base, drawing Aurand's throw, and Mike Fisher (who went 3-for-4) bolted from third. Fisher was called out on a bang-bang play at the plate.
"I kinda watched the throw but I wanted to see if (Fisher) would come home; I kinda figured he would," said Aurand. "So I could see him out of the corner of my eye and I was just waiting for the throw the whole time."
Mifflinburg (6-3, 4-2 HAC-I) had an even tougher time cashing in with ducks on the pond. The Wildcats stranded nine runners, seven in scoring position. In fact, each of their first two runs were aided by wild pitches or passed balls that moved the runners from first to third.
"It's frustrating," said Church. "When you get guys in scoring position you have to push in runs. Our kids know that, but I think they put way too much pressure on."
Gardner had something to do with it, as well. The senior righty turned up the heat on his fastball and dueled his way out of several tough spots. The Wildcats had two in scoring position with no outs in the second and didn't score; they loaded the sacks with no outs in the fourth and came up empty when Lewisburg pulled a slick 1-2-3 double play; and runners were left at second and third in the fifth.
"(Gardner) wanted this game bad," said Kline. "He got made the pitches he had to and got himself out of trouble. It seemed like the longer the game went on, the better he got focused and more in the groove he got."
Lynch's bullet off a 1-2 pitch prevented Mifflinburg from leaving the bases loaded in the seventh.
"I believe in him," said Church, who opted against pinch-hitting for Lynch. "He's hitting the ball very well in the cage; he's just thinking way too much when he goes to the plate. He's got to load his hands, track (the ball) and hit it. That's what he did on that pitch."