In the top half of the ninth inning Nick Browne came to the plate for the sixth time. Browne had walked twice but was hitless in his three other plate appearances. His previous at-bat, he hit a ball so high that birds waved it goodbye as it sailed back down into the right fielder’s glove.
“I kept trying to do too much. The more I slow up, the better pitches I get, the better my at-bats are,” he said after the game.
Browne made all the right adjustments, and in his final at-bat he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded, patience on his mind, and a bid to the Diamond Classic hanging in the balance.
“He started me with a curve ball, it got to 3-0 and I got the take. He threw a fastball on 3-1, and I knew he had to come back with another one 3-2, with no where to put me.”
Browne capped off a stellar late inning Crusader surge by launching a grand slam deep into the woods behind the right center field fence.
When asked if it was his biggest home run of the year, Browne simply answered, “Yes.”
The tale that led up to the game’s final innings was as colorful as it gets. The two rivals met, but were employing two very different approaches.
Eustace relied on ace, lefty Devin Smeltzer while Paul VI head coach Pat Fisher alternated a right-hander, Shawn Semple, and a left-hander, Shane Kurbak, mixing and matching as he saw fit.
Fisher’s unorthodox strategy garnered praise from Eustace head coach Sam Tropiano. “We’re a little top heavy with lefties, it was a great strategy that neutralized us for a little bit.”
Neutralized may not be the word. Fisher’s alternating style nullified Eustace, which was held hitless through five innings.
The no-brainer strategy to run out Devin Smeltzer is a dream decision coaches hope they're afforded. In front of a San Francisco Giants scout, Smeltzer topped out at 90 mph, sat at 88, and displayed a nasty hook which helped him strike out 13 batters in six innings of work.
PVI's offense battled Smeltzer’s dominant style with aggressive base running and timely hitting. Every time Smeltzer allowed a base runner, PVI was off the the races, stealing second and third, forcing the issue and scratching out three runs through the game's first five frames.
In the top half of the sixth, Eustace tied the game at 3-3 when Smeltzer flexed his offensive muscles, mashing a two-run homer to deep left center. It was Eustace’s first base hit of the day.
Paul VI answered with a two-run bomb of their own by four-hole hitter John Petrongolo and pushed across one more run to end the sixth inning with a 6-3 edge.
Eustace went to work in the top of the seventh. Its four-hole hitter, Mike Kursinkski, started the rally with an extra-base hit of his own, doubling to left. After a walk and a single to left, the bases were loaded. One run came in on a walk (6-4), and after an infield fly out, a fielder's choice scored one more (6-5).
The tying run stood just 90 feet away. With the game on the line, and down to its last out, Eustace trotted out their lead-off hitter, Chris Jones.
“My last two at-bats, I was out in front, so that at-bat, I was looking to go to right-center.”
When asked if he was given the green light to swing at the start of his at-bat, Jones chuckled, smiled and said, “Yeah.” The aggressive lead-off hitter lunged a little, but kept his hands far enough back to smoke a line drive into right field, driving in the game’s tying run.
“It was an awesome game,” said Jones.
Coach Pat Fisher, “It was kind of like a heavyweight fight, and it got into the late rounds. The credit really goes to Bishop Eustace. They earned it.”
Browne’s grand slam and Jones game-saving RBI propelled Eustace to a 16-1 record in a thrilling afternoon of baseball. Eustace secured its bid for the Diamond Classic by moving atop the Olympic Conference's National Division.
You can watch Eustace play in the Diamond Classic this upcoming Saturday morning in Washington Township.
Keep in touch with South Jersey Sports Digest for a full schedule of Diamond Classic games and coverage.
Dan Angelo writes for Philly Sports Live and South Jesery Sports Digest.