By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
HALIFAX -- Trey Pritchard said he felt fine after the violent collision, though his body language suggested otherwise. He insisted he heard no birds and saw no stars while shaking it off.
It was a good thing, too. Because just three pitches after East Juniata's Dalton Rowe plowed through him, Halifax's catcher was forced to make another play at the plate -- one that may have saved Tuesday's game and possibly secured the Tri-Valley League championship.
"I knew it was going to be a close game," said Pritchard, "so I knew that was going to be a big play."
The Wildcats won the pivotal TVL game, 3-2, despite a two-hit, 11-strikeout performance by Tigers pitcher Nick Lorenz. Halifax starter Hunter Hilinski made a three-run third inning stand up, getting the final out with the tying run at third base.
Halifax (14-4, 13-2 TVL) emerged from a logjam of teams atop the league to take sole possession of first place with only a trip to Juniata remaining. A win Thursday would clinch the TVL crown outright, while a loss could bring East Juniata (12-4, 11-3), Upper Dauphin (15-5, 13-3) and possibly Newport (13-4, 10-3) back into the mix.
"I would be a liar if I said we thought we'd be in the top three -- and it's not because I don't have faith in my kids. I knew they'd come to play," said Wildcats coach Rick Ansel, who shared the 2011 title with reigning three-time champ Upper Dauphin. "But nobody thought that."
Each starter faced a bases-loaded situation in the early innings. Lorenz worked free of his with a pair of strikeouts and a heart-stopping line out to second baseman Jeremy Pannebaker. Hilinski's was a bit more interesting.
Ryan Stuck, Rowe and Kyle Hart singled on consecutive pitches to fill the bases with no outs in the East Juniata half of the second. After a strikeout, Dillon Leonard hit a slow curve through the middle that scored Stuck and gave Rowe a chance. The throw from center fielder Jarrett Hoy beat Rowe by several feet and the Tiger attempted to jar the ball from Pritchard's grasp by barreling into him.
Though there is no mandatory slide rule in high school baseball, Rowe was called out for failing to attempt to avoid contact with Pritchard. Leonard and Hart were sent back to first and second bases, respectively; Rowe was permitted to remain in the game as malicious contact was not ruled on the play. Still, Pritchard needed a few moments to collect himself.
"It's what my coaches, what my parents taught me: Just always block the plate and give it your all. Don't let anything affect you," he said, before adding the only thing he felt was "more motivated to win."
Three pitches later, Tigers leadoff man Nick Stahr reached for a curve and poked it to shallow left field. Zack Schumber handled it on a bounce and fired the ball toward home plate. The ball got to Pritchard about the same time as Hart, and a sweeping tag kept it a 1-0 game.
"He gets steamrolled and then a play later he's got to do it again and he doesn't flinch," said Ansel. "The heart in that kid ... I'm so proud of him."
"I wanted to get out of it with nothing hurt, but with bases loaded (and) no outs you'll take one run any day," said Hilinski.
Halifax took the lead for good in the third when Lorenz, struggling to command his breaking ball, walked the bases loaded. A run scored on a wild pitch before freshman Dan Osenbach delivered a two-run single up the middle on a low 2-2 fastball. Lorenz fanned two looking to end the inning, then harnessed his curve and retired all but two of the last 11 batters he faced.
"If you'd have told me before the game that we were only going to have three (runs), I'd have said, 'Oh, boy,'" said Ansel. "(Lorenz is) a helluva pitcher."
East Juniata made it 3-2 on a Bailey Coder RBI single in the fourth, but Tigers left the bases loaded. The only other baserunner they had in the final three innings (Leonard's leadoff hit in the seventh) was stranded at third when Hilinski got a Lorenz fly out to end the game.
"Everyone wants a one-run lead, guy on third and two outs," said Hilinski. "It was a like a little dream to get out of it."