Four errors, three passed balls, two walks, two wild pitches and a hit batter led to five Independence runs in the first two innings.
But with their backs against the wall and staring a potential mercy-rule loss in the face, the Panthers woke up with an inning for the ages.
EC sent 13 batters to the plate in the second, with the first eight reaching base, and scored nine runs, turning the game on its ear and propelling the fourth-seeded Panthers to an 11-6 Division III district semifinal win over the top-seeded and fourth-ranked Blue Devils at Cuyahoga Community College West’s Mottl Field.
The Panthers (15-13) advance to play No. 2 seed Keystone (22-7) today at 6 p.m., setting up an All-Lorain County final.
“All year, we’ve been trying to get through the first inning and we’ve been struggling,” Elyria Catholic coach Bruce Lisicky said. “I told the guys that we had a lot of ballgame left. If we give up right now, it’s over. I said, ‘Let’s go up and bat around,’ and doggone it, we batted around.
“We’ve been hitting the ball hard all year at guys, and I’ve been preaching at guys, ‘Don’t get down. Don’t get frustrated. The hits are going to fall,’ and come tournament time, those hits have been falling for us. Hopefully, we can keep it going (today).”
Ian Kovacs and Noah Bland began the inning with back-to-back singles. Little did they realize they would not only wind up batting again in that inning, but also getting back-to-back singles again.
Taylor Reasor was hit by a Mike Martin (4-1) pitch, and Kovacs scored on Luke Redmond’s fielder’s-choice grounder to cut the deficit to 5-1. As a bonus, the Devils second baseman dropped the throw to force Reasor at second, and the bases were loaded with nobody out.
Chris Tomshack followed with an RBI single to shallow center, and Zack Brosky coaxed a bases-loaded walk to cut the deficit to 5-3 with the bases still loaded and still nobody out.
That’s when leadoff hitter Angelo Cruz delivered the biggest hit of the inning — and of the game. On the first pitch, Cruz drilled a shot to deep center for a three-run double.
All of a sudden, EC was ahead 6-5 … and there still wasn’t anybody out.
“Angelo went against our philosophy of getting the pitcher to throw strikes, but we were on a roll and he saw a first-pitch fastball and jumped on it,” Lisicky said. “He drilled that gap and cleared the bases, and to our credit, we never looked back.”
Cruz scored on an error on a grounder to second by Joey Begany. After Kovacs added his second hit of the inning to put runners at second and third with one out, Bland came through with a two-run single to center to put the exclamation point on the huge inning.
“All year, our coach tells us when we’re down to keep our heads up,” said Cruz, who went 1-for-4 with three RBIs and a run scored. “That’s what we did today. We came out, hit the ball well, put it in play, made them make plays and made things happen. We can’t strike out. We put the ball in play with eight hits and 11 runs. It’s a good win.”
Cruz said he is usually one of the most patient hitters on the team.
“This time, I know the pitcher personally, and I knew he would throw me a first-pitch fastball,” he said. “So I set up dead-red and tried to take it deep to clear the bases, and that’s what I did.”
Independence coach Mark Echstenkamper, a Wellington resident, couldn’t believe how sloppy his team played.
“That’s our season — one inning,” he said after his team fell to 20-5. “You give up nine runs, and give them up in the manner we did, and you can’t expect to win. When you make three errors before you get an out, that only compounds it.
“We had them on the ropes. All we had to do was get a sharp inning, and we didn’t do it.”
EC added two more in the fifth, when Independence’s fourth error scored one and a one-out RBI double by defensive replacement Christian Stanziano made it 11-6.
“Christian Stanziano came off the bench, makes two great plays at second base then drives in a run with a double,” Lisicky said. “He’s an example of what I’ve been trying to preach — that we’ve been platooning a lot of players, but just because you’re not starting, we may need you at any time in any situation, so be ready.”
EC did not play Keystone during the regular season, but Lisicky feels confident about his team’s chances.
“I’ve been preaching to these kids that playing all those Division I schools would prepare us well for the playoffs,” Lisicky said. “We took our lumps during the regular season, but I see the other D-III schools here and they all played nothing but D-III or D-IV programs. So by us taking our beatings early, it prepared us to play like a D-I team today.
“It was nice beating the fourth-ranked team in the state today. These guys never gave up. I know we’re capable of hitting ball and they showed that today.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.