by Jonathan Vander Lugt
Springside Chestnut Hill and Germantown Academy entered last week in almost identical positions and left it in opposite ones.
Both teams had swept the previous week to bring their league records to 3-2, and when they faced each other on Tuesday to open the week’s league play, both knew that nothing short of a Tuesday-Friday sweep would suffice in a league where the margin of error is razor sharp.
After a big third inning put the Patriots away in SCH’s 6-3 win on Tuesday, their weeks set a different course. The Blue Devils pulled off a terrific comeback to beat Penn Charter 5-4 on Friday, while the Pats fell to Malvern Prep, 3-1.
“Every game in the Inter-Ac is a big one,” said SCH head coach Joe Ishikawa on Tuesday. After the win on Friday, the Blue Devils are in first place with a 5-2 record in the league. “We talk about it all the time.”
It’s not a stretch to say that SCH came into Tuesday’s game as the underdogs, or something close to it. Even though they had dealt GA a 10-0 loss to open Inter-Ac play a few weeks prior, the Patriots were winners of two straight, playing on their home field and sending out Colten Smith, a Duke commit and perhaps the best starter in the league.
Smith was cruising through the first two innings, hitting his spots and fanning Blue Devil hitters for three of the first six outs. GA spotted him a two-run lead in part due to a wacky play in the second inning, where Alexander Browne’s single to right plated Milo DeBartlo (who was pinch-running for Jeff Decker). DeBartlo missed the plate on his initial pass, but after an on-target throw from right field was mishandled at home, he scrambled back to the plate and managed to duck under the tag for a run. Browne later came around to score on a more conventional RBI single by Dakota Barbet.
Then, the rails fell off for the Pats. SCH squared everything that Smith offered in the third, leading to five runs on three hits and three walks.
“They weren’t dinking and dunking,” GA head coach Tim Ginter said. “When guys start hitting like that, you just hold your breath and hope to slow it down and get out of it.”
Nasir Jackson scored the inning’s first run after reaching on a walk, and Jahli Hendricks, Scott Bandura and Pat Elliott all followed up with hits and each came around to score. Jared-Sprague Lott scored the inning’s final run after reaching on an error.
“They just simplified their approach,” Ishikawa said of his bats. “Smith is probably the best pitcher in the league, and he was great up until that point. We just went simple on him, and strung a couple hits together.”
Smith, typically unaccustomed to such profound struggles, spent the time between the third and fourth innings trying to figure out what led to the outburst. He eventually concluded that he was either tipping pitches or that SCH was picking them up at second.
“That could have been the case, and if it was that’s just part of the game,” Ginter said. “We have to do a better job of disguising that type of stuff. It’s something we’ll talk about, but we have to adjust.”
He struck out three in the fourth inning and was lifted for Wes Champlin after one out in the fifth. The Blue Devils tacked on their final run against Champlin an inning later when a Hendricks sacrifice fly plated Cole McNeil.
After the two-run GA burst in the second, Ishikawa went to senior Carter Davis for the remainder of the game. He allowed one run in the fifth when Shane Harkins scored on a double play, but was otherwise sharp, allowing just four hits, walking none and fanning a pair.
“That second inning could have gone up to four runs,” Ishikawa said. The plan was to get either two or three innings out of starter John Niebish. After two, Ishikawa felt that it was time to make the switch. “So we took our blessings and went to Carter.”
The lanky right-hander features a herky-jerky, side-arm delivery that distracts batters and leaves them guessing about what type of pitch is about to leave his hand.
“He’s one of the fiercest competitors we have,” Ishikawa said. “He’s able to battle from pitch to pitch, and does an incredible job of moving on in at-bats.”
The Blue Devils (11-9, 5-2) will host Malvern Prep and the Episcopal Academy for two more crucial league games next week. If they sweep the pair, they’ll be guaranteed at least a tie for the league crown.
“We just have incredible leadership,” Ishikawa said. “It starts with Jahli Hendricks. He’s a coach on the field. Pat Elliott too, and even our juniors. There’s no panic in them.”
GA (7-8, 3-4) meanwhile, will host both Episcopal and the Haverford School on Tuesday and Friday, respectively.
“There’s not a lot of quit in these guys,” Ginter said, “but we came into [the SCH game] expecting to win.”
“That’s the second half of the season for you,” he went on. “The first half is tough, and the second is even tougher especially when you find yourself towards the top. It’s a place we haven’t been in a while.”
“It’s a roller coaster ride – there’s ups and downs,” he said. “Just when you think you’re doing really well, you’ll start that descent a bit. But now we’ve got to cut it off.”
Around the Area:
La Salle swept its week, while PC split games against Episcopal and SCH. Germantown Friends came away with the most impressive showing however, with three straight league wins to clinch a spot in the league playoffs.
The Explorers (10-4, 9-1) continued their march toward a potential Catholic League crown with wins over Conwell-Egan Catholic and Father Judge. La Salle will take on Devon Prep and Archbishop Wood this week before wrapping up league play next Monday against Archbishop Ryan.
PC (16-7-1, 2-4) bounced back a bit with a 2-1 win over Episcopal on Tuesday, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed after dropping Friday’s game to SCH. The Quakers allowed a five-spot in the top of the seventh before leaving the bases loaded in the bottom half of the loss. Coach Justin Hanley will try to rally his squad at the Haverford School and Malvern Prep this week.
Germantown Friends (7-10, 6-4) had nothing short of a terrific week. Facing an uphill climb into the league playoffs, the Tigers have given themselves an opportunity to finish third in the league. Randy Mower’s squad won twice in extras – 2-1 in 10 innings over Abington Friends School last Tuesday, and 11-5 in eight innings over the George School on Wednesday – before beating Shipley 5-3 to cap the week on Friday. Caleb Friedman-Smith performed particularly well against Shipley, going 3-for-4 with a run scored and tossing four innings of two-run ball. As for the Friends League playoff, a Shipley loss to Friends Select on Monday would give GFS the third seed in the league and would make their next game on Saturday. Should Shipley win, the Tigers will host Moorestown Friends in the four-five play-in game on Tuesday.