Disappointment permeated Bellefonte’s dugout after Thursday’s final out, the team’s groans drowned out only by East Pennsboro’s celebration. But the Red Raiders didn’t hang their heads.
They may have lost and their season ended — but they had reason to keep their heads up following a 2-1 loss in the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class 4A Baseball Championships. Despite getting no-hit through six innings, by a senior pitcher committed to Division I St. Joe’s, Bellefonte sparked an unlikely push in the final frame and nearly stunned its opponent.
“It showed that we have heart,” senior C.J. Funk said. “We were down 2-0 and that stung. ... But that really shows, as a team, we have a lot of pride in what we do and that we’re never out of a fight.”
East Penn’s pitcher, Nick Embleton, kept the Red Raiders off-balance all game long by mixing a fastball in the upper-80s with a nasty slider and a 12-6 curveball in the 70s. He retired 18 of the first 19 batters he faced; whenever Bellefonte put wood on the ball, it always seemed to find the center fielder’s glove.
But all that changed in the final inning, the top of the seventh, when Bellefonte trailed 2-0 without a hit all game. Funk led off the frame by singling down the third-base line, and Bobby Marsh followed that up with a single to shallow left. “Rattled!” one of Bellefonte’s players yelled toward East Penn. “Scoreboard!” the Panthers shouted back.
A soft ground out advanced the runners, and another ground out by C.J. Lauck — complemented by some heads-up baserunning — scored Funk. Lauck blooped a soft grounder back to the pitcher, and the pitcher hesitated while keeping an eye on Funk at third. As soon as he threw to first, Funk went safely home — and, right after the first baseman belatedly threw it back to the catcher, Marsh went to third.
That meant the game fell on the shoulders of the next batter, Ashton Wetzler, Bellefonte’s ace (0.66 ERA) who wasn’t eligible to pitch, since he threw Monday. With a 2-1 deficit and two outs, Wetzler popped up on an outside fastball to end the game.
“Our guys never let up,” Bellefonte coach Jon Clark said. “They never stop trying, and they never stop adjusting.”
Embleton finished with nine strikeouts and one walk while scattering just two hits. Bellefonte’s Seth Shuey did just fine in Wetzler’s absence, striking out two, walking one and allowing nine hits.
But it just took the Raiders too long to figure out East Penn’s right-hander.
“I knew they had a lot of good hitters,” Embleton said. “So I was just trying to get ahead — and stay ahead (of the count).”
East Penn broke a scoreless tie in the third inning when one of Bellefonte’s outfielders misjudged a fly ball and it went over his head for a double. (“He said it was hard to see the ball off the bat,” Shuey added.) After a ground out that advanced the runner, East Penn found home after Embleton’s bloop single to shallow center. In the sixth, East Penn scored another run on a suicide squeeze in which Bellefonte missed the tag at home by a split second.
“That was beautiful!” one of East Penn’s coaches yelled, clapping his hands.
With the win, East Pennsboro will advance to take on the winner between Beaver and New Castle on Monday in the PIAA semifinals. With the loss, Bellefonte was forced to board its bus with the “what ifs” swirling around its head. Its season ends with a 16-6 record.
But, even in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s loss at Newport’s ballpark, Bellefonte didn’t whimper or throw its gloves in disgust. In some ways, Thursday’s game told the story of the whole season.
They started off slow, but they didn’t give up and came back in the end. And, even if they didn’t realize their ultimate goal of a state title, they still put forth an admirable effort — especially after not recording their first win of the season until Game 4.
“Starting 0-3 and then coming back and getting to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, that’s a pretty good season,” Shuey said.
Added Clark: “It was a tremendous season. ... But it’s a tough way to end.”