While the controversy, chaos and protest swirled around him, Lemont pitcher Matt Smith seemed not to notice.
The stoic left-hander waited out a couple of long delays and kept chucking strikes.
Smith scattered seven hits as the Ducks edged Howard in the critical Game 3 of the Centre County Baseball League championship series. Johnny Martinez had three hits for Lemont, which leads 2-1 in the best-of-five series and can capture its 11th title in 14 seasons with a win at Howard on Tuesday.
Smith, who lost 5-3 to the Hawks in the opening game of the series, kept Howard off-balance with his curve and took advantage of the spacious confines at Spring Creek Park. The Hawks smoked several deep fly balls that landed in the gloves of Lemont outfielders.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Centre Daily Times
“I always enjoy pitching. It doesn’t matter what the situation is,” said Smith, who struck out one and did not walk a batter in outdueling Howard’s Mike Surovec. “When you’re in a 1-1 series with Howard, you want the ball. They’re a great team. You can see they battle all game and they don’t give up.”
Smith said the key to his afternoon was his control.
“It was first-pitch strikes, just getting ahead of the guys,” he said. “They have a lot of great hitters. If you fall behind in the count to them --- and you could see with some nice shots that they hit today --- they’re a great ball team all-around. You’ve got to attack them and get ahead of them and make sure you don’t fall behind and get into their count.”
Smith also kept a level head when things turned crazy in the top of the fourth.
With Lemont leading 1-0, Howard leadoff hitter Travis Price grounded a ball down the first base line. First base umpire Dana Heckman initially threw his hands up --- the sign of a dead ball --- then pointed fair. Price seeing the initial signal didn’t run and was still in the batter’s box when first baseman Martinez tagged the bag, bringing an out call from Heckman.
Price vehemently protested the call and was ejected by Heckman after some choice words. Howard played the rest of the game under protest, but the protest was disallowed after the game.
During the 10-minute delay as the four umpires met with each other and the managers, Smith calmly waited and tossed a few pitches with catcher Eric Wolanski.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Smith said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not going to do you any good. The players get all fired up and it just takes away from the game. It’s all about the game and our fans coming out. You jut want to get it friendly for everyone. For me to get involved, it’s not going to do me any good in the grand scheme of things.”
Lemont then scored two big runs in the bottom of the inning. Erik Kempton grounded a shot down the third base line and legged it into a triple. Kyle Wright then dropped down a bunt that third baseman Bones Fisher threw away, allowing Kempton to score and sending Wright to second. Wolanski bunted Wright to third and Scott Glass drove him in with a single to left to make it 3-0.
Kyle Womer tripled and scored on Rusty Gates’ sacrifice fly to get Howard on the board in the fifth, but the game wouldn’t end without another crazy play at first base.
Clay Smith led off with a hot shot to third for an infield hit and moved up when Glass threw the ball past first. Gage Gardner, who entered the game for Price, put down a sacrifice bunt and Martinez’s throw pulled second baseman Wright off the bag, putting runners at first and third. Tyler Womer roped a single up the middle to make it 3-2.
With runners at first and second and no outs, Dan Cole then smashed a high chopper that literally ripped off Martinez’s glove. Martinez found the ball and dove back to the bag tagging it with his off-hand while the ball was in the other.
Cole was initially called safe and in the melee Gardner tried to score. Martinez got up and fired home to easily get Gardner at the plate and after the umpires conferred Cole was ruled out. After another Hawk reached on an infield error, Smith got out of the jam by getting Fisher on a grounder to second.
“That was wild,” Martinez said of the play at first. “I was up in the grass pretty close ready for a bunt. With a lefty up, that is always pretty scary. (Cole) swung away and I threw my glove up there and it took it right off. I tried to collect myself and find the ball.”
He said the Howard fans along the right side actually helped him get Gardner. “I could just hear the fans and the players talking. I looked up and saw him.”
Smith got the Hawks in order in the seventh, two on long fly balls to left.
“I thought we hit him good even for the low-scoring game,” Kyle Womer said. “... We probably would have a couple of home runs today. No doubt.”
Surovec, throwing a variety of breaking pitches, fastballs and knuckleballs, also allowed seven hits with two walks and a strikeout.
“Surovec threw really well today,” Kyle Womer said. “That’s what we needed from him.”
Martinez had three singles. He singled and scored on Kieran Kempton’s RBI single up the middle in the first inning.
“He was tough,” Martinez said of Surovec. “Two of my hits didn’t quite make it past the pitcher’s mound. I can run a little bit so luckily I beat them out.”
The Ducks were just glad to have Martinez, who missed the series opener. Martinez, who works in eastern Maryland, sometimes drives more than three hours to reach games.
“God bless him for doing that,” Smith said. “That’s a lot. For him to make the games and be committed to us still, that’s great and we appreciate it.”
Martinez says the drive is worth it.
“I love this team,” he said. “They come and they sell out and we only play to win. That’s what I’m about. That’s why I’m here. I love playing with them.”
Evan Gettig and Clay Smith had two hits each for the Hawks, who find themselves in the same predicament they had in the semifinals against defending league champion Philipsburg. They rebounded to win that series 3-2.
“Knowing we could do that against Philipsburg really helps us out here,” Kyle Womer said. “We’re down 2-1. We can’t give up. We can always bounce back. We can take Game 4 and it’s anybody’s game on Game 5.”