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Dragons aim to take the next step in playoffs

Nate Betts and the Dragons will take on Meadville in the D-10 quarterfinals.

After losing only two players from a surprise 17-5 2017 season, expectations were sky high for Warren baseball heading into 2018.

While the Dragons hit a rough patch in late April through early May, losing three of four, they rebounded to finish 13-6 and Region 6 runner-up.

Now they turn their focus to the postseason, where Warren will look to take the next step after bowing out in the District 10 semifinals last year.

First up will be a familiar opponent, the Meadville Bulldogs.

Meadville started slowly, going just 3-4 over the first seven games, but built a ton of momentum late. The Bulldogs are riding a seven-game winning streak into the postseason.

The Dragons and Bulldogs have squared off at least once in each of the last three seasons, splitting the four-game series 2-2. In their most recent matchup, May 4 at Meadville, the Bulldogs scored six runs in the sixth inning to break a 4-4 tie and grab a 10-4 win.

As is true for most playoff contests, pitching will ultimately determine which team is able to advance. The expected matchup pits a pair of senior starters having tremendous seasons.

Warren’s Adam Irwin has been absolutely dominant this year, going 4-0 with a save and 0.52 ERA in six games. Irwin has allowed just 15 hits in 27 innings, with eight walks and 24 strikeouts. He’s surrendered only two earned runs on the year, one a solo homerun and one on a wild pitch. Opponents are hitting just .160 against him.

Chad Neugebauer has been equally good for the Bulldogs this season. He’s 2-2 in seven games and sports a 1.29 ERA. In 32.2 innings he’s allowed 15 runs, six earned, on 21 hits with 17 walks and 54 strikeouts.

Neither hurler took the mound when the teams met earlier this season.

From the bullpen, Warren coach Rick Eaton will have a number of options to choose from and game situation will likely determine who he turns to in relief. Seniors Colby Johnson (2-1, 4.85 ERA, 11:6 K:BB ratio) and Derek Knapp (1-2, 3.44 ERA, 19:2 K:BB) are his most experienced options. But sophomores Ryan Rafalski (1-0, 3.00 ERA, 16:8) and Nick Hussey (2-1, 3.86 ERA, 15:10:) have come up big in pressure situations at times this season.

For the Bulldogs, Nick Frantz has been nothing short of spectacular in relief this season. The junior is 3-0 with two saves and a 0.65 ERA in nine appearances this year. He also sports a nifty 19:4 K:BB ratio and surrendered just 15 hits in 21.2 innings.

Offensively, both teams are capable of putting up runs. Meadville put up an impressive 6.79 runs per game on the year while Warren averaged an even 8 runs per game.

The Dragons will look to the hot-hitting duo of sophomore third baseman Mitch Grosch (.508/.573/.655) and junior catcher Aidan Morrison (.381/.423/.446) to lead the offensive attack. Grosch began the year with a 16-game hitting streak and leads the team in RBI (21). He’s also been hit by a pitch (6) twice as often as he’s struck out this year (3).

Morrison started the year slowly (3-for-18) with no extra base hits or RBI), but turned things around in a big way. He finished the year going 21-for-40 with three doubles, two home runs and 14 RBI.

Outfielders Lance Baldensperger (.364/.440/.515) and Owen Balas (.451/.483/.588) have also provided an offensive spark for Warren. Baldensperger is second on the team in RBI (20) and runs scored (20), while Balas is tied for third in RBI (14) and second in extra base hits (5).

The Bulldogs don’t have any single player with eye-popping offensive numbers, but senior Cole Potase (.541/.633/.648) leads the team in hits (20) and is second in runs scored (12). Frantz and fellow junior Zach Wilson share the team lead in RBI (11) while Frantz is the team leader in extra base hits (5). Alex Knox has both Meadville homeruns on the year, one a solo shot to start the big rally against the Dragons.

First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Slippery Rock University’s Critchfield Park, weather permitting.

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