---- — It started with a hunch -- and the shameless hope it could carry this column.
Now, though, if anyone asks, let's just call it ace reporting. It'll be our secret.
I talk with many baseball coaches each season, as you might guess, in person and on the phone.
Recently it struck me that I've spent many of those conversations this year commiserating with coaches over hard-luck losses.
I mean, a lot. Way more often than usual.
So on that hunch (and with fingers-crossed as this column had a Wednesday night deadline) I did some auditing Wednesday afternoon, and I was shocked (read: stoked) by what I discovered.
Thirty-one percent of the games played by teams in The Daily Item coverage area had been decided by one or two runs, my own definition of a close game.
That's nearly one-third of all the games played through Tuesday (47 of 153).
Wait. It gets better.
The close games played by Valley teams in the Heartland Athletic Conference equaled 39 percent (40 of 104).
Narrow the focus to the six local Heartland-I squads (Danville, Midd-West, Mifflinburg, Milton, Selinsgrove and Shikellamy) and the figure jumps to a whopping 49 percent. That's right, half of the games played by HAC-I teams from the Valley were decided by one or two runs.
What's more, Valley teams are struggling in the close games; they're 20-27 overall (HAC and Tri-Valley League); 19-21 in the HAC alone; and 11-17 in HAC-I.
Danville is 3-2 in close games, but the Ironmen lost their last two such games, by two runs at Williamsport and 2-1 to Loyalsock.
"You can find a silver lining in that we went toe-to-toe with a defending district champion that returned everybody," Ironmen coach Devin Knorr said after the Loyalsock game. "The fact of the matter is, they don't give you half of a win for being right there with them. That's one I hope we don't look back on in a few weeks and wish we had another shot at it."
Like Danville, five other teams (Lewisburg, Midd-West, Milton, Selinsgrove and Shikellamy) have seen about half their games decided by one or two runs. Of them, only Milton has a winning record in the games (3-1).
"I think every team has an ace or two, and when you run into one and you throw your ace it's going to be a close ballgame," said Mustangs coach Ron Flood. "There's no two ways about it."
No Valley team has been haunted by close games the way Selinsgrove has. The Seals (1-8 overall) are 1-7 in them; they've lost three one-run games and four times by two runs.
"I told the players that we are the best 1-8 team in the state, and I believe it," said Selinsgrove coach Brent Beiler. "We have been in every game but one. Every game night, a new weakness rears its evil head and prevents us from winning. It might be pitching, hitting, defense or base-running blunders, none of which occur frequently. It's just that we bring out our weakness at the most inopportune time."
Lewisburg was held scoreless for four innings by Midd-West's Alex Lash on Wednesday.
In the fifth, though, the Green Dragons rallied for three runs on four consecutive two-out hits. They left the tying runs on base but they had clearly generated some momentum. Several minutes later, a driving rain ended the game and made the Mustangs 5-3 winners.
It was Lewisburg's fourth consecutive loss, the last three of which were by five total runs.
"It's just a good league. Every pitch in every inning in every game counts," said Kevin Kline, the Dragons first-year coach. "They're starting to get focused a little better and it's starting to come around."
Upper Dauphin coach Ryan Lentz conceded that his team (which won or shared the last three TVL titles) had to learn how to win this season. After an impressive pair of wins Saturday in Shamokin's Zalar Memorial Tournament, the Trojans lost a 1-0 heart-breaker to Newport on Monday. The Trojans have played only two close games in 12, but they lost both.
"It's those little things here or there that make a difference in a 2-1 game," said Danville's Knorr.
"We have to do a better job of handling the pressure in those clutch situations. When we learn to do that, I think we're going to be a very dangerous baseball team."
Between now and then, however, coaches have to work to keep up morale and not allow their players to dwell on what could have been.
"Our players understand what is going on. They are in every game, but they have nothing to show for it. They deserve better," said Beiler.
"Team morale has been -- actually -- higher than I'd like. I want them to stay positive but I want them to not accept what is going on. There is still time to win a lot of games. I just want them to believe and win."
After all, the Seals and so many other Valley teams have clearly had enough of keeping it close.
n Scott Dudinskie covers high school baseball for The Daily Item. Email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.