HANOVER TOWNSHIP – The groundball to first base would have brought a routine end to a rally if it had been hit by just about anyone other than Greater Pittston’s Erik Walkowiak.
Instead, it set off a race.
Walkowiak won that race with Swoyersville first baseman Evan McCue for the game-winning, two-run, infield single that lifted Greater Pittston to Wednesday’s 7-5 victory, the Region 5 Senior American Legion baseball title and a berth in the state tournament.
“Most of my hits this year are infield singles,” Walkowiak said. “I thought if I got it deep enough, which I did, I could beat him to first.”
Greater Pittston started the inning with seven straight singles to erase a 5-1 deficit against a Swoyersville team that went unbeaten in the Wyoming Valley League regular season.
Walkowiak came to the plate with two out and two men in scoring position.
McCue went to his left, fielded the ball cleanly, near the first-base line, but deep in the infield dirt.
“I never stopped,” Walkowiak said. “Even though the game was tied, I wanted to get more.”
Walkowiak was not the only one thinking that way.
Chuck Bressler also got a good jump – from second base.
Bressler never slowed down, rounding third and sliding in behind Justin Martinelli, who had easily scored from third base.
“We’re not a team that slows down running to first base because we think we’re going to be out,” Walkowiak said.
The combined hustle of Walkowiak and Bressler capped the game-winning, six-run rally in a game when all 12 Greater Pittston hits were singles and eight of them were bunched in the eighth inning.
Scoring runs with singles is not easy, but Greater Pittston put them together – along with moving runners and taking extra bases – often enough to produce a championship.
“We play small ball,” Greater Pittston manager Jerry Ranieli said. “We move runners. We bunt. We squeeze. We hit and run.”
Greater Pittston used 55 hits to win five of the six games in the region tournament. Of those hits, 48 were singles, with just six doubles and one triple.
“We have guys that will make contact,” Ranieli said. “We have to put the ball on the ground, hit and run and steal.
“It’s 100 percent National League ball. It’s small ball at its best.”
Greater Pittston will take that game to Boyertown where it opens state play Tuesday against Twin Valley, the Berks County League and Region 2 champion.
That trip did not look likely after managing just three hits in the first seven innings of the title game.
The only Greater Pittston run to that point had come, quite appropriately, on a squeeze bunt. Trent Grove went from first to third on a fourth-inning Dylan Maloney single and Justin Martinelli squeezed him home to briefly tie the game in the top of the fourth.
Swoyersville had the game’s only three extra-base hits, using two of them to open a 5-1 lead after seven innings.
Coming off a 9-7, 11-inning win over Jersey Shore to start the day, Greater Pittston appeared to have run out of gas.
“We were spent in the first couple innings,” Ranieli said. “ … I told them, ‘I know you’re tired. I’m tired. The fans are tired. We’ve been here all week’.”
Greater Pittston slowly put together the winning inning, building momentum as it went.
First, Jordan Zezza, Jake Granteed and Joe Gavenonis produced consecutive singles to load the bases.
Then, Grove singled through the left side to drive in two runs and cut the lead in half.
Maloney bunted the ball so well on his sacrifice attempt that he was able to win his own race to first base to beat out a hit and reload the bases.
Martinelli singled to cut the lead to one and keep the bases loaded.
Bressler missed on a squeeze attempt and Grove, the lead runner, was tagged out at the plate.
Ranieli immediately went to work from the third-base coach’s box on encouraging Bressler not to waste the opportunity that still existed with the two runners who were in scoring position after moving up on the play.
Bressler came through with the tying single through the left side and took second when Swoyersville chose not to try to stop him from stealing in a first-and-third situation.
“He gets on then he scores probably our most important run,” Ranieli said. That second run was big.”
The extra run eliminated some of Swoyersville’s options in the ninth inning.
Jake Granteed, who had started the first game of the day, came back to the mound to get three straight outs in the eighth inning.
Granteed allowed two singles in the ninth, but battled to get three more strikeouts, including the last two outs of the game.
“I really like to throw under pressure,” Granteed said. “When I’m under pressure, I tend to do a lot better.”
Clutch relief pitching, including Walkowiak’s save in the Jersey Shore game to start the day, combined with the pressure created by Greater Pittston’s small ball approach to produce a championship effort.