With Bald Eagle Area’s top returning pitcher Nate Cleaver limited this season due to injury, Eagles coach Jim Gardner had to give his other arms some chances and see who emerged.
Gardner was confident Jeff Bennett would provide a steady presence on the mound, but the rest remained uncertain.
Until Colton Comly took the ball and provided quality start after quality start in his first varsity season.
“We had a good idea that Bennett was going to be one of our guys,” Gardner said. “Colton Comly certainly has stepped up in a big way for us and done a really, really good job going out there, and being real consistent for us pretty much game in and game out.”
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Gardner will turn to Comly to start for second-seeded Bald Eagle Area (12-6) in its District 6 Class AA quarterfinal game against No. 7 Blairsville (12-5) at Doc Etters Field at 4 p.m. on Monday. Blairsville beat No. 10 Southern Huntingdon 7-1 in its first-round game Saturday, while the Eagles had a bye. Bald Eagle Area enters the postseason with an experienced lineup supporting Bennett and Comly, who have combined to go 10-5 in 80 1/3 innings this season. No. 12 seed Penns Valley will face No. 5 Forest Hills in a first-round game in Sidman at 4 p.m. Monday.
Gardner talked to his players when Bald Eagle Area was 6-4 and challenged them to run the table before the district tournament field was set.
The Eagles did that, winning six straight to grab the No. 2 seed.
“I felt it was something we could do,” Gardner said. “We stressed to the kids one game at a time and they really accepted the challenge and went after it, and they put us in position. I didn't even really believe the 2 seed was attainable. I thought we were probably looking at the 3 seed.”
The Eagles were led offensively by veteran starters Ryan Dyke (.508), Bryce Greene (.492), Bryan Greene (.311) and Cleaver (.361). Brandon Gettig (.375), Ryan Guenot (.344) and Jason Jones (.286) each put together solid seasons in Bald Eagle Area’s potent lineup.
And Bennett and Comly were dependable on the mound.
Bennett emerged as the team’s top pitcher, going 5-3 with a 3.34 ERA in 44 innings. The lefty’s thrown a two-hitter and a one-hitter this year.
Gardner could trust Comly all season, too. He’s 5-2 with a 5.20 ERA in 36 1/3 innings. Gardner knew he had been successful for the JV team, but he hadn’t seen Comly pitch before the year.
He had one rough outing against Tyrone, only throwing an inning-plus before the Eagles stormed back to win 20-10. But even in a loss to Jersey Shore last week, Gardner said it was arguably the best game he’s thrown.
“He's certainly never shown any emotion in a negative manner whatsoever the whole time, never upset by an error or anything like that,” Gardner said. “He's just stayed solid out there and that's so important for a pitcher because we're going to make some mistakes now and then. We certainly don't plan on it, but those things do happen and he's stayed solid through it all.”
Comly throws a fastball, curveball and knuckleball.
He was curious to see how effective Comly was with his knuckleball, a rare pitch for a left-hander, while watching him throw in the gym before the season. Time and again, he threw it for a strike.
“I was pretty excited about having that as an option,” Gardner said. “Something different to try to give the opposing team to think about because the more they have to think about, they're up there guessing trying to figure it out. That's what you want.”
His emergence helped Bald Eagle Area earn the No. 2 seed.
Now, he’ll try to get the Eagles off to a strong start in the postseason. Gardner’s taken the same approach preparing Comly as the rest of the time.
“Sometimes come playoff time or a big game, you kind of maybe do a little bit more and we don't want to do that,” Gardner said. “We want to just relax, have fun, play our brand of baseball. If we do that, I believe we'll be fine.”
Follow Ryne Gery on Twitter @rgery