In Scott Zuback’s sight line, the baseball got smaller and smaller as it rocketed off go-ahead runner Ben Sallade’s bat and lifted upward.
Zuback, behind home plate for the Howard Hawks, stood and watched the ball tail to the left and suddenly, he and his teammates’ eyes were glued to center fielder Joe Pillot.
As Sallade steamed around first base, Pillot — in full stride — snatched the ball deep in Spring Creek Park’s fenceless outfield and slid to his knees. He raised his glove and simply nodded, a victorious gesture that signaled Howard’s 5-3 win over the Lemont Ducks in Game 1 of the Centre County League Championship Series on Tuesday.
“I was just thinking, ‘I hope Joe’s getting that one,’” Howard pitcher Tyler Womer said. “He did and my guys played a hell of a defense behind me. ... This is a tough field. He’s got a lot of room to run. He’s not usually out there but I have faith in him and I have faith and trust in all of my guys to make plays behind me.”
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The seventh-seeded Hawks continued their impressive postseason run by fending off the third-seeded Ducks on their home diamond. The best-of-five series shifts back to Howard for Game 2 on Thursday.
Game 1 was all about timely hitting for the Hawks, sturdy pitching from Womer and perfect defense from the rest of the Howard crew.
It’s a recipe the Hawks have been without since their last finals appearance in 2000 when they lost to the Ducks.
But Howard, which limped through the regular season at 8-14, has rediscovered a winning formula at the perfect time this year. The Hawks beat second-seeded Lewistown in the opening round then bounced Philipsburg — a team that went unbeaten and locked up the No. 1 seed with ease — in the semifinals. Howard is now 7-3 in the postseason.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot,” Zuback said. “Everything’s going our way. We’re playing awesome defense. That’s the biggest thing. We’re hitting the ball and playing awesome defense.”
Although Lemont outhit the Hawks 8-6, the Ducks struggled to bat runners around to the plate. Lemont stranded four runners on and its best chance to walk off with a win was foiled by smart fielding by Howard shortstop Ryan Dyke. The Bald Eagle Area senior, filling in for Womer at shortstop, forced the lead runner at second base on consecutive plays in the bottom of the seventh, which preceded Pillot’s game-saving catch in center.
While Womer failed to record a strikeout, he held the Ducks in check and walked just one batter. His counterpart, Lemont’s Seth Whitehill pitched 5 2/3 innings before he was replaced by Sallade with two runners on in the sixth. By that time, the Hawks had done all the damage they’d need to do.
Howard’s Clay Smith led the charge and Womer finished it in the fifth inning.
With one out and his team trailing 3-1, Smith and Travis Price drew consecutive walks. Sensing Whitehill wearing down, Womer planned to swing away at the first pitch he saw. It was a pretty good strategy as Womer drove the ball to deep right where it landed in the thick bushes for a three-run home run that put Howard ahead for good at 4-3.
“He had been trying to get me inside all day and I’d been waiting for it. I just turned on it and sent it out,” Womer said. “He’s looking to throw a strike and get ahead and I was looking to sit on something, anything in my zone. I was looking for it.”
Smith’s RBI single in the sixth pushed the margin to 5-3.
Now Howard will look to take a stranglehold on the series at home.
“Last series, when we lost to Philipsburg the first game you kind of get that feeling that you’re playing a powerhouse, you’re already down and it’s going to be even harder,” Zuback said. “So it’s nice to have one win under our belts already.”
Although Lemont couldn’t produce the runs needed for the win, they were able to drive the ball consistently against Womer. Trey Nicosia, Eric Wolanski, Erik Kempton and Kyle Wright all hammered doubles with Wright knocking in two runs for the Ducks.
“We feel confident. We love playing at home,” Womer said. “We love all of these fans that come to support us. We feel like we have a big home field advantage but they’re tough. They’re a good team. We’re going to have to bring all we’ve got again.”