Back in the saddle

MIFFLINTOWN – After a disappointing outing the night before, this team needed a win to get back on track in the young scholastic baseball season.

Saturday morning, “this team” could have been Midd-West, which lost a comeback heartbreaker to Selinsgrove Friday. And it was definitely Juniata, which was blanked in a mercy-rule game by rival East Juniata the previous afternoon.

Juniata had a better day for sure, but the homestanding Indians were that team to the Mustangs’ this, as the visitors left with a 9-1 victory in the non-league contest.

It didn’t seem like a breaking point at the time, but a gutsy call by Midd-West skipper Ron Flood provided the spark for his club, already sitting on a 2-0 lead in the top of the third. Colton Keister singled to lead off the frame, then stole second.

Hunter Shuff drew a walk, and that’s when Flood signaled for a grander act of larceny – a double steal by the duo, which set up a pair of runs that made the margin painful.

“I thought if the catcher threw it to third base at least we were getting second,” Flood said. “If he threw it to second we had a chance of getting second.”

Keister came home on a sacrifice fly by Shane Connahan, then Shuff crossed on a wild pitch. With an offense already struggling to move, that 4-0 cushion was more than Midd-West needed to finish off the home team.

It didn’t help Juniata’s cause that, for the second day in a row, the Indians were facing a pitcher that had just a little more stuff than they had batting. Austin Hockenbrock struck out 13 batters in the complete-game performance to collect the win, facing more than the statutory minimum in only two of the seven innings.

“He throws hard. I have two aces, him and Colton. Colton’s the same way,” Flood said.

Hockenbrock’s mix of off-speed and fast pitches were not handled well by Juniata, with hitters repeatedly leading or trailing the ball.

“I talked until I was blue in the face with these guys between innings, telling them ‘You’re going to have to speed the bat up. Your hands are slow – you’re behind.’ Bat speed kills in high school baseball,” Juniata coach Nick Beward said. “If you get around on a hard-throwing pitcher like that, making contact is the biggest key.”

Juniata’s lone run, scored in the fourth, was provided by Steven Zearfaus. He made it over on a passed ball after a third strike.

Midd-West’s first run was courtesy of a Juniata error in the top of the first, which put Shuff on second. Connahan doubled to plate the run. In the second, Luke Zimmerman doubled to lead off the Mustang attack; an Aaron Sharp single made the score 2-0.

After the two-run third, the Mustangs were stopped for two innings, and Juniata got its run. But the Indians left one behind in the third – their first base runner of the day – and two more in the fourth.

Midd-West too advantage of Juniata mistakes in the sixth to pocket the win. The Mustangs drew three walks, Shuff doubled and the Indians added an error as five runs crossed the plate, as even a pitching change failed to stanch the onslaught. Beward said overall the pitching was still pretty good, with a pair of youngsters on the hill.

“We’re going to need those younger arms to come through because we have five games next week,” he said. “We’re finding some things pitching-wise, we just need to step up the hitting.”

Connahan was the leader among a handful of Mustang players with similar hitting stats, going 2-for-3 with a double and three RBIs. Zearfaus, who was the bright spot in the lineup for the Indians, had both of Juniata’s hits, including the game’s only triple.

“Steven is one of our clutch hitters, he’s been one for the past two years – a real good senior leader,” Beward said. “He’s usually what gets us going.”

Notes: The final two innings were played with a single umpire. Blueshirt Tim Plank, who started behind the plate, was injured when a ball was fouled off and struck his arm. Field umpire Ed Parks finished the game behind the plate.