One pitch after another kept flicking off Erik Walkowiak’s bat, until the puzzled pitcher facing him was finally forced to regroup.
Trailing by two runs in the last inning of what ultimately became a 4-2 loss, Walkowiak fouled off 10 straight two-strike pitches while refusing to surrender to a defeat that seemed certain.
In the end, he grounded back to the pitcher for the game’s next-to-last out. But the message he sent was unmistakeable.
When it comes to American Legion baseball playoffs, Greater Pittston is one tough out.
“That’s really what we display here,” said Walkowiak, Greater Pittston’s center fielder and one of the team’s plethora of pitchers. “We never give up.”
That resolve led Greater Pittston to the Wyoming Valley league and Region 5 tournament championships. And it’s sure to inspire the area’s most unrelenting team in the Pennsylvania American Legion playoffs, starting with today’s 4 p.m. game against Region 2 champion Twin Valley at Boyertown’s Bear Stadium.
“It seems they just don’t want to quit,” Greater Pittston manager Jerry Ranieli said of his guys.
It showed, time and again.
A late-season surge earned Greater Pittston the top seed in the Wyoming Valley league playoffs, but the team had to overcome a loss in that tournament’s championship round to earn the title.
After advancing to regional play, a 4-2 loss to then-unbeaten Swoyersville and a tournament rainout forced Greater Pittston to play two doubleheaders in two days of 90-degree weather. But Greater Pittston won all four games, including an improbable six-run, eighth-inning rally that lifted Greater Pittston to a 7-5 victory over Swoyersville in the Region 5 title game.
“We had to win a lot of games at the end of the season to get in the playoffs, and we did that,” Ranieli said. “We lost that game to Nanticoke in the (championship round of) league playoffs and bounced right back to win the game. Then, just to be able to play two doubleheaders in that heat and to win against a great Swoyersville team showed a lot of resiliency and character from these young men.”
It was sheer will that got Greater Pittston a spot in the eight-team state field.
Trailing 5-1 with Swoyersville’s best pitcher on the mound Wednesday, Greater Pittston started its improbable surge to states with eight straight singles, and scored the winning two runs when Walkowiak beat out a bouncer to deep first base for a two-run single.
“It showed them we can play with anybody,” Ranieli said. “I think Swoyersville could be one of the best teams in the state of Pennsylvania. We’re still riding the high. But we’ve got to get over it now and go back to playing baseball.”
Greater Pittston plans to play the tournament the same way it played the rest of the season. The team will lean on a deep pitching staff led by Jake Granteed and Dylan Maloney, scrappy play and solid defense while trying for a state championship.
“We’re not going to go down there and hit 12 home runs in the tournament,” Ranieli said. “We’re going to have to play solid baseball. We’re going to have to play our small ball.”
That’s a game made up of hustle and heart.
Greater Pittston catcher Trent Grove wound up with an RBI single on a suicide squeeze during a three-run 11th inning against Jersey Shore, helping send Greater Pittston to the Region 5 title game against Swoyersville earlier Wednesday. That afternoon, Maloney’s bunt single loaded the bases in the dramatic eighth inning and set the stage for Chuck Bressler’s game-tying RBI single against Swoyersville. And of course, Walkowiak’s infield single scored two runs - including the game’s final one when Bressler raced home from second base on the play.
“I had five hits (between Wednesday’s two games) and three of them were in the infield,” Grove said. “What it comes down to, you’ll get on base if you just hustle.”
That just may be enough to keep Greater Pittston in the race to become the best in the state.
“In games like this,” Grove said, “you can never give up.”