STATE COLLEGE — Long before Darren Kerdesky’s game-clinching triple, there was a game-changing throw to the plate.
And even before that, there was a game effort to save another run.
While the Dallas Mountaineers won the school’s first state championship with a scrappy run-scoring attack and a spectacular, nine-strikeout pitching performance by starter Nick Kocher, it was defense that really saved the day for Dallas.
“Our defense playing the way they were makes it easy to pitch,” Kocher said after Dallas captured the PIAA Class 4A title with a 5-0 victory over South Park. “You can just go out there and let them hit it, because I have confidence in my teammates to make the plays.”
In the top of the fourth inning, left fielder Drew Patton and catcher Matt Mathers teamed up to make the biggest one.
With two outs in a scoreless game, Patton picked up a single to the outfield and unleashed a strong throw to the plate to cut down South Park pinch runner Brenden Gray — who was trying to score the game’s first run.
“Oh, my eyes were bigger than the ball at that point,” said Patton, who played only half the game in the outfield while nursing a hamstring injury. “I saw the runner turn for third (base) and I said, ‘I have a good shot at him.’ “
Without so much as a bobble, Patton scooped up the bounding ball — “You have to catch the ball before you throw it,” he said — and fired a rocket to home plate on a fly.
Mathers had to leap a little to snare it, but had plenty of time to apply the tag to Gray for the inning’s final out.
“I know Drew has a strong arm,” Mathers said. “He had a pretty good throw. I knew if the runner was coming home, he was going to be out.”
The large contingent of fans from the Wyoming Valley erupted with glee at Penn State’s Medlar Field, and so did the Dallas dugout. The Mountaineers played a costly South Park error into the game’s first two runs in the bottom of the frame while still riding a wave of emotion from an inning-ending outfield assist.
“Oh, that was the play of the game,” Kocher said. “If he (Patton) didn’t make a great throw, they could have scored a few more runs. You never know how a big inning’s going to start. Great play.”
It almost made South Park wish Patton were in another country at that point.
Come to mention it, he nearly was.
“We were planning a trip to Argentina for two years,” Patton said, referring to an awaited family vacation. “We were supposed to leave today (Friday). We just pushed the flight back (to Saturday).”
Dallas shortstop Will McCrum pushed himself to the limit with an all-out stretch to his right in the first inning, knocking down a single that was headed for the outfield. The effort forced South Park runner Adam Morris to stop at third instead of putting the Eagles up quickly, and Kocher fanned the next batter to end the inning and the threat.
“That saved a run there, no doubt about that,” South Park coach Steve Bucci said. “Just didn’t put it away today.”
Dallas did, when leadoff hitter Kerdesky drove a two-run triple into the right-center field gap to polish off a three-run sixth inning that rang the bell on the Mountaineers’ state championship celebration.
But the game was littered with key Dallas defensive plays that robbed South Park of opportunities to deliver that type of clutch hit.
Mike Luksic made one in the third inning, diving to spear a bullet off the bat of Morris and then turned a tricky short hop into a fielder’s choice to finish the fifth inning and strand Eagles runners at the corners. First baseman Christo Huntington made a neat play in foul territory to track down a South Park pop in the sixth.
And even Kocher got caught up in dazzling with defense.
Moving to left field for the seventh inning when relief pitcher Joshua Lydon came on to finish up, Kocher made a sliding catch of Bywalski’s sinking liner to set up a the delirious pile of Dallas players that formed at third base when Luksic squeezed a pop for the game’s final out.
“That felt great,” Kocher said of his outfield grab. “Best defensive play I made all season, maybe in my whole life.”
All those web gems left the Mountaineers feeling on top of the world, and gave at least one Dallas player a gold medal to show the rest of the world — or at least carry along with him to Argentina.
“I don’t know how it’ll do in the airport,” Patton laughed, “but I can try.”