Year of the Dragon! Rafalski’s walk-off winner delivers District 10 title for Warren
ERIE, Pa. – It’s a dream every young baseball player has growing up, but few actually get to experience.
On Monday, Warren’s Ryan Rafalski stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning, bases loaded, tie game, a District 10 championship hanging in the balance.
The junior didn’t let the substantial drama that filled the stands at Ainsworth Field last for long, lacing the first pitch he saw into the outfield, scoring Miach Passmore and giving Warren the 4A title, 5-4 over General McLane.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “I was just thinking get a ball to the outfield to score the run. It was our goal from Day 1 to win District 10 and today we accomplished that.”
It was a game that had a little bit of everything – great pitching, a couple of big bombs and all kinds of drama. In short, it was a game worthy of a championship, and it’s hard not to believe it was one of the best played in District 10 in quite some time.
In the words of Warren coach Rick Eaton it was ‘a classic high school baseball game.’
“The last four years this is what we’ve been working for, and we’ve fell short,” said Warren senior Austyn Cummings. “Everybody this year as a team put it together. It’s just a family. We have fun playing together.”
And in the first 4 1/2 innings, there was a whole lot of pitching going on between Rafalski and General McLane’s Matt Mountain.
The two took turns matching zeros, with neither team putting together a serious threat.
Rafalski punched out a pair to start the game, and finished with seven all together. He had at least one strikeout in every inning, the first four of which were looking.
“Today I was locating my fastball and throwing that pretty well,” he said. “I threw some good offspeed pitches. They fell off a little bit, but my fastball was there the whole game.”
Mountain was his equal. After pitching in both of McLane’s playoff wins last week, he showed no signs of fatigue. The lefty ace didn’t allow a hit until Rafalski’s 1-out single in the fourth.
Lance Baldensperger followed with a base hit, but Mountain got a groudout and strikeout to end the inning and keep the game scoreless.
“They have seven senior starters, and their coach has them playing with that free attitude,” Eaton said of the Lancers. “They had a great season. Last year they had the same group of kids and we 10-runned them both games. That’s how far they’ve come in a year. They gave us everything we could handle.”
In the top of the fifth, Rafalski retired the 7-8-9 hitters in order with two more strikeouts, and the Dragon bats came alive in the bottom half of the frame, with a little bit of help.
With one out, Mitch Grosch hit a hot shot to third that Chance Hoehn wasn’t able to field cleanly. Mountain was able to fan Passmore, but Austyn Cummings extended the inning with a single up the middle that took a hop off the Ainsworth grass, bringing Morrison to the plate.
He was ready to swing on the first pitch, and just by the sound the ball made off the bat, everyone in attendance knew it was gone. The ball landed well beyond the fence in left, and with one swing of the bat, a scoreless tie became a 3-0 game.
“I got a letter-high fastball,” Morrison said. “I knew it was coming. He threw me a first-pitch slider the last time. I was ready to swing.”
Just as quickly as the game changed, however, McLane took the momentum right back in the top of the sixth.
Leadoff hitter Matt Leehan ripped a single, and Mountain reached on an error to bring up Derek Fay.
Like Morrison, Fay took the first pitch he saw and hit an absolute laser to right. And in just four pitches, a 3-0 lead completely evaporated.
“We watched them go eight innings against Harbor Creek and we knew they weren’t going to roll over for us and that they were going to come hit,” Cummings said. “Fay’s a good hitter, and when he hit that we just said, we have to keep it rolling. We had to hit more than one inning.”
Mountain worked around Ben Berdine’s 1-out double in he sixth, and Rafalski exited after six innings, giving way to Hunter Loomis in the top of the seventh. Back-to-back walks proved to be costly, as Eli Buto came around to score on a wild pitch to give GM (10-10) a 4-3 lead.
Loomis allowed just the one run, and there was no panic from the Dragons, who trailed for the first time in the game.
After all, they’re used to these type of games.
“It’s not somewhere we haven’t been before,” Morrison said.
The top of the order came up, and Grosch sent a 2-1 pitch up the middle for a base hit. Passmore followed and hit a tricky grounder to second. Buto attempted to cut down the lead runner, but the good speed of Grosch allowed him to beat it out, and the Dragons were in business.
Cummings followed, roping the first pitch he saw to right, and right fielder Tristen Lee was unable to come up with it cleanly, allowing Grosch to easily score to tie the game.
Mountain was lifted for Buto, and Morrison was intentionally walked to load the bases, setting the stage for Rafalski.
“All those close games prepared us for this,” Rafalski said. “We’re not going to back down. We’re going to battle and today we proved that.”
For the three seniors – Morrison, Cummings and Baldensperger, this was a long time coming.
“It’s indescribable,” Baldensperger said. “Everyone knew their job and did what they were supposed to do all year.”
Said Cummings: “Our team is so selfless.”
It was a moment made out of all the countless hours in the cage, on the field and in the gym. This was simply a team that wasn’t going to be denied.
“Great hitting, pitching, a couple of plays that weren’t made, some kids made some great plays,” Eaton said. “That’s baseball in a nutshell right there. We were fortunate to come out on the right side and we deserve it. Countless times in the summer, in the gym, in the cage. If you’re going to be good you have to put in the time.”
D-10 champs for just the third time since 1977, the Dragons will now turn their attention to the state playoffs, where they will face the winner of the WPIAL consolation game between New Castle and Yough (Tuesday, 2 p.m., Washington & Jefferson College).
“We’re the underdogs, and we’re comfortable in that role,” Morrison said.
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GENERAL MCLANE (4)
Lehhan ss 3-1-1-0, Mountain p-cf 2-1-1-0, Fay cf-1b 3-1-1-3, Hoehn 3b 4-0-0-0, Bastow dh 3-0-0-0, Myers lf 1-0-0-0, Renick c 3-0-1-0, Kennedy cr 0-0-0-0, Buto 2b-p 2-1-0-0, Johnson 1b-2b 2-0-0-0, Totals 23-4-4-3
Grosch ss 4-2-1-0, Passmore 3b 4-1-0-0, Cummings dh 3-1-2-0, Morrison c 3-1-1-3, Rafalski p-2b 4-0-2-1, Baldensperger cf 3-0-1-0, Arnold lf 2-0-0-0, Berdine 1b 3-0-1-0, Swanson rf 3-0-0-0, Totals 29-5-8-4
General McLane 000 003 1 – 4 4 5
Warren 000 030 2 – 5 8 1
2B – Berdine (W); HR – Morrison (W), Fay (G)
IP H R ER BB SO
Mountain (L, 4-3) 6+ 7 5 2 2 6
Buto 0 1 0 0 1 0
Rafalski 6 4 3 2 4 8
Loomis (W, 3-1) 1 0 1 1 3 0
Note: Mountain pitched to three batters in the 7th