Less than a minute after Bald Eagle Area’s Nate Cleaver struck out the side to secure a 1-0 victory over Bellefonte, the bruise-colored sky let loose a chorus of thunder that likely would have delayed or ended play.
That storm front hung ominously on Friday in the background of every pitch.
In fact, earlier precipitation already sopped the varsity field; meaning Cleaver’s complete-game two-hit shutout took place on Bellefonte’s middle school field.
“First inning wasn’t the greatest, but after that I kind of settled in,” Cleaver said. “Kept throwing strikes and got the ball where it needed to be to get outs.”
The junior’s assessment was spot on. And because Bellefonte’s Taylor Smith nearly matched him pitch-for-pitch, Cleaver’s defense had to be spot on as well.
Both pitchers, at times, looked dominant, but Bald Eagle Area’s defense came through when called upon and helped the Eagles (13-4) secure a fourth consecutive victory.
Bryan Greene (1-for-4) manufactured the game’s only run in the first inning after pummeling Smith’s first offering to left field. After Smith threw to first to keep the speedster close, Dan Roan’s errant throw back to the mound sailed and allowed Greene to take second.
Then after Bryce Green (1-for-4) moved his twin brother to third via groundout, a Logan Reese sacrifice fly drove in the game’s lone run.
Conversely, the BEA defense would eventually help Cleaver out of trouble in the bottom half after the junior gave up a single to Smith (1-for-3) and then walked Doylan Deitrich (0-for-2) on four pitches.
When Roan (0-for-3) came up next and blasted a hanging curve to right-center, Dylan Womer tracked the drive and snared it on the move.
Then after Taylor Butts (0-for-3) grounded meekly to third, a Ryan Dyke glove and strike to first ended the inning.
“I was hitting my spots with my fastballs and getting some groundballs here and there,” Cleaver said. “Defense did a great job today.”
Bellefonte (7-7) managed just two hits in the game, but it seemed every hard hit ball was within a defenders’ reach. BEA converted several into momentum-sustaining plays.
In the Raiders’ fifth, Bellefonte’s Seth Weaver (1-for-2) seized a sliver of hope after legging out an infield single with just one out. However, a 5-4-3 double play — that started in Dyke’s glove and ended in Cole Long’s mitt just before Tanner Light’s foot hit first — dashed Bellefonte’s chance at a rally.
“That was big,” said Cleaver. “Kept us with the momentum. We only scored one run but we pretty much seemed to have the momentum most of the game.”
Bellefonte’s defense, to its credit, made its share of plays.
A diving catch in the third by Tanner Day stopped a dangerous drive by Bryan Greene from wreaking havoc in left-center.
Because BEA didn’t center many hits off Smith — who gave up just one run on five hits, one walk and five strikeouts — so Day’s dive was big.
“(Taylor) just maintained his confidence and composure,” said Bellefonte head coach Jeremy Rellinger. “He’s been working on somethings and placed his pitches better.”
After a rough season last year, Bellefonte has played a playoff-bound BEA team close in two contests this season.
However, in late-game situations, the Eagles made plays typical of seasoned teams.
With Cleaver changing speeds to keep batters off balance, Bryan Greene made an important play in the sixth.
After Cleaver fooled Day with a change up, the resulting swinging bunt dribbled down the third baseline and appeared to turn foul. Greene grabbed it anyway and fired to first for the out.
The decision surprised Cleaver, but he said he had faith in his catcher.
“He picked it up right on the line and I was like ‘I’m going to rely that Bryan can put a BB down there faster than (Day) can get there,” Cleaver said with a smile.
“That was a big confidence boost as well.”
Cleaver took that confidence to the mound in the seventh with the heart of Bellefonte’s order due up.
A fastball tied up Dietrich swinging. A change got Roan whiffing. Then another change caught Butts flailing for the third.
“Confidence is the biggest thing in this game,” said BEA head coach Jim Gardner. “It’s such a mental game and you have to feel confident with whatever you’re doing whether it be at the plate or in the field or you’re going to be in trouble…”