Baseball Gets Off to Hot Start in CC Playoffs

Thursday, May 1, 2014
 

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The way the day before turned out, the Muhlenberg baseball team looked like it might need to travel by boat to its Centennial Conference playoff opener at Haverford. By Thursday, though, the deluge had given way to a picture-perfect spring afternoon. To the Mules’ delight, the storms didn’t take the thunder from their bats on their way out of the area.

Matthew Lawsky Making its first postseason appearance in six years, Muhlenberg jumped out to a big lead and held on for a 9-5 victory, its first in the playoffs since 2003. The Mules touched up one of Division III’s top pitchers for five runs in the first three innings, pounced on the Fords’ bullpen for four more in the eighth and then survived a furious late rally that saw the hosts bring the tying run to the plate.

Despite some anxious moments, the end result put the third-seeded Mules in good position heading into the weekend; they’ll meet Friday’s Gettysburg-Johns Hopkins winner when the double-elimination tournament continues Saturday in Gettysburg.

“That was awesome,” said junior Matthew Lawsky, who pitched into the eighth inning to pick up his fifth win of the season. “To go out in the first playoff game we’ve had in a long time and get a big win that puts ourselves in the driver’s seat is great for this program.”

Junior Kurt Johnson led the way with three hits and classmate Jimmy Cody blasted a two-run homer for the Mules, who pounded out 11 hits and generally made life very difficult for Haverford ace Tommy Bergjans, who had allowed one earned run in his last 40 innings. Muhlenberg was patient at the plate, drawing six walks and extending at-bats by spoiling a multitude of pitches. That persistence paid off early and often.

Muhlenberg opened the scoring with an RBI groundout by senior Nick Kennedy in the second, then exploded for four runs in the third. Cody led off the frame with a booming double off the wall in left field, and senior John Scuderi brought him home one pitch later, plugging the left-center gap with a two-bagger of his own to make it 2-0.

Kurt Johnson After a walk to senior Max Litvak, classmate Brett Rosen came through with a run-scoring single to right. Litvak took third on an error, and Johnson, who scored two runs, extended the lead to 4-0 with an RBI groundout. A wild pitch allowed Rosen to score, and when the dust settled from the catcher’s slide into home plate, the Mules had stunned the home crowd with a five-run advantage.

“We always try to jump out to early leads like that,” said junior Nick Plinio, who reached base in all four plate appearances with two hits and two walks. “With Matty on the mound we were in great shape. We were just looking to work counts and get a cushion because we knew [Bergjans] was going to finish the game strong.

“With a guy like that, you know he’s great. We just wanted to keep the same approach at the plate, make him work for everything and put good swings on the pitches we got to hit.”

While Bergjans labored most of the afternoon, Lawsky (top right) was a model of efficiency before running into trouble in the eighth. The right-hander needed just 76 pitches to get through the first seven frames, walking one and allowing only a few hard-hit balls. Until the eighth, the vast majority of Haverford’s at-bats ended in weak groundouts or lazy fly balls.

“I realized after the first batter that they were being really aggressive,” Lawsky said. “I threw a pitch that bounced in the dirt that he swung at, and came back with a curve that he rolled over on. I realized from there that I could get ahead in the count early and get them to chase late. I wanted to keep the ball low since our infield has been playing so well. I told myself I wasn’t going to beat myself with walks; they were going to have to beat me with hits.”

By the time Bergjans recovered to pitch through the seventh, the damage had mostly been done. Just to be sure – and it came in handy later – the Mules tacked on some insurance in the eighth.

Nick Plinio Haverford finally got on the board in the seventh, but Muhlenberg wasted little time getting to the Fords bullpen. Johnson (left) led off the eighth with a sharp single to left, and Plinio plated (bottom right) him with a double to the gap in left center. Kennedy followed with an infield single, chasing the first reliever before junior Danny Usewick added a sacrifice fly to make it 7-1.

Cody then put the exclamation point on the Mules’ impressive playoff debut, blasting a two-run homer over the fence in right to stretch the lead to 9-1. It was Cody’s first round-tripper of the season, and the third of his career.

“We’ve know from day one that we won’t back down from anyone,” Lawsky said. “One through nine, we went after them. I didn’t look at it as me versus [Bergjans]; I looked at it as me against their lineup. I knew if I did my job we would get to him eventually.”

The Fords made it interesting in the eighth, plating four runs to cut the deficit to 9-5 and bringing the tying run to the plate. But with the bases loaded and two outs, junior Phillip Balseca came on and induced a flyout to get out of the jam. Balseca struck out the side in the ninth for his fifth save of the season.

“All year, Phil has been huge for us in conference play,” Lawsky said of the Mules’ closer. “He’s been put in some really tough situations and he’s done a great job handling them. I give him a lot of credit for that.”
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