WEST LAWN -- All season long, the NorChester bats had been on fire. But suddenly those bats turned cold at the most inopportune time -- the playoffs.
That lack of firepower finally caught up with the Big Dawgz on Tuesday as NorChester fell to Swoyersville, 8-4, in a Junior Legion Eastern Regionals elimination game at Owls Field.
The Big Dawgz managed just five hits and matched those with an uncharacteristic five errors, while banging out eight hits and committing no errors.
Swoyersville takes on North Parkland, a 15-14 winner over West Lawn, today at 11 a.m., with the winner than facing off against West Lawn at 3:15 p.m. in the championship game.
Everything appeared to be in NorChester's favor on Tuesday. The Big Dawgz had played nearly twice as many games, coming in with a 33-6 record, while Swoyersville came in at 16-8. It seemed like it would be no sweat for the Dawgz, even in the blistering sun.
It didn't take Swoyersville long to squash that notion. After sailing through the first inning by retiring the first three batters, Dawgz starter Jeff Evans gave up a walk to open the second, then three straight singles, with one run crossing.
Then Swoyersville's number nine hitter, Chris Sabol, blasted a grand slam over the leftfield fence to make it 5-0. They added a couple more hits and another run, batting around the order. With two outs, Dawgz ace Tim Ponto took over on the mound and fanned the 10th batter to end the inning.
In Evans' defense, he has been battling some nagging injuries lately and, more crucially, the Dawgz defense just wasn't as sharp as it has been all year.
"Last night, we played excel
lent defense (in the win over Collegeville). Tonight, we just didn't," said Dawgz manager Ken Long. "Pitching hasn't been the problem, you have to hit the ball. We had three hits the two games before this game, and you're not going to win many games getting one or two hits."
In earlier games, the Dawgz would have easily made up for those runs. And those five errors came later in the game -- two in the sixth and three in the seventh -- with Swoyersville adding two more unearned runs in the seventh, while Ponto did his usual super job, scattering just two hits through five innings.
"It was tough," Ponto said. "I just wanted to come in and keep the six runs there so we could start coming back. Today, we just couldn't do it. Tough game. I'm really upset that we lost."
With the Dawgz held hitless through the first three frames, David Raifsnider finally broke the stalemate with a single in the fourth but was left stranded.
Then, with a little help by way of several walks, the Big Dawgz scored their four runs in the fifth, also marching 10 batters to the plate. With Swoyersville starter Andy Hughes suddenly not as sharp, he walked three Dawgz to load the bases.
Evans delivered the Dawgz' big hit of the day, slamming a double to center to plate two runs. The next run scored on a wild pitch. With that, Cody Ellsworth replaced Hughes, but promptly also walked three batters to bring across the fourth Dawgz run. Ellsworth got the hook in favor of Nick Wilson, who got the final out. And no more Dawgz runs would cross.
"That was my first hit in the tournament, I just tried to step up and get something done," Evans said. "It just never came together for us today. We just didn't hit well this whole tournament, we just struggled. In the regular season, we hit well. It was one of our strong points. Came here, and we didn't hit. Every single game, we didn't have multiple, big hit games, didn't put a bunch of hits together in a row. And that really hurt us."
"You win as a team, and you lose as a team, and we didn't play well this week," Long said.
"It hurts," said Brad Solomon, who has been on this team for three years and again had one of the few hits. "It just shows how much progress we can still make. And not just as a team, but every individual player here has things they can work on. We have to learn not to play to everyone's expectations, but each player to his own ability."
They still had good reason to be proud of their season, Long told them.
"The kids had a nice season, they won their league, they should be proud of that," Long said. "I hope they learn from this and use it as a way to get to the next level. And that the next time they get in this situation, they can succeed and do a little better than what we did this time."