The Lebanon Catholic baseball team's season came to an agonizing end Tuesday evening in the first round of the District Three playoffs. Camp Hill's Kevin Chrencik delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh to eliminate the Beavers from the Class A field, 4-3.
Kern, a gun-slinging sophomore, faced the minimum the first time through the order, finishing with 10 strikeouts. The 6-foot-4 right-hander overwhelmed the Lions until running out of gas in the final two frames. He issued four free passes and plunked a pair of batters in the sixth and seventh to give Camp Hill hope after a textbook suicide squeeze put the hosts in a 3-1 hole.
Meanwhile, opposing pitcher Chad Bronson proved just as effective, striking out nine in seven innings on the hill. Bronson also smacked a solo home run to start the comeback in the bottom of sixth for the No. 3 seeds.
"It's a shame we had to play them this early in the tourney," a relieved Lions manager Brad Shover said. "When I looked at the bracket, it appeared that they were going to be the best team we were playing. Unfortunately, one of us had to go in the first round. I'm glad it was them."
The No. 6 seeded Beavers end the year at 7-14 overall and will graduate a half dozen seniors who have qualified for the Class A tournament four consecutive seasons.
"As far as I know, there's not another class at Lebanon Catholic that can say that," Beaver manager Scott Hargett boasted. "I know there isn't now. There will be after this. But there isn't now."
Catholic seemed to have the second round in grasp after a fast start gave it a first-inning edge. Drew Gates ripped a one-out single to right, scoring the game's first run following a fielder's choice by Andrew Hainly and back-to-back walks to Matt Shirato and Nick Culbert.
In the third, Gates was again the catalyst as he beat out a base hit and crossed on Hainly's sac bunt, a passed ball and Ian Long's RBI groundout, making it 2-0. Meanwhile, Kern was in complete control, utilizing a curveball and changeup to go with his top-shelf fastball.
"When he has all three pitches working, he's effective," added Hargett. "All of us who ever played this game think we can hit a high fastball, we're all wrong. If they're going to swing at it, we'll stay up there, cause there's no way you're going to catch up. No way in the world."
Camp Hill registered its first hit in the fourth inning when Bronson singled to right. After stealing second, he cut the 2-0 lead in half when he scored on a dropped third strike. The manufactured run not only gave the Lions' life, it also afforded them a new approach at the plate.
"We did adjust, we really started making him pitch in about the fifth inning," explained Shover. "We didn't think that he could throw the curveball consistently for a strike. So if we could pick that up and take it, we figured we could get ahead in the counts, and that's what started to happen late in the game."
Leading 2-1, Catholic manufactured a run of its own in the top half of the fifth. Ian Long cranked a long double to left and advanced to third on a foul-out by Shirato. Then, Culbert dropped a bunt down on the first pitch, surprising everyone but Long, who was halfway home by the time the ball was put in play.
"I ran it in the very first game of the year, and, yes, it worked," Hargett smirked. "It was actually the same batter, Nick Culbert. I actually just put the sign back into today before the game, just 'cause I thought we were going to need whatever runs we could get."
After Bronson's bomb made it 3-2 in the sixth, Kern sandwiched a hit batter between two walks. With two outs, he plunked Ben Eppley to allow Chrencik to plate the equalizer.
"Towards the end there, he lost the curveball a little bit and had to go more fastball," said Hargett. "Unfortunately, it had to be over the middle of the plate by the sixth inning. ... There wasn't a high strike called all game. That didn't change. They were going after it a little bit in the first couple innings, then they wised up and saw he wasn't calling it."
In the bottom of the seventh, Jordan Gonzalez hit a double with one out. Hargett then elected to intentionally walk Bronson, and Kern followed with another free pass to load the bags for Chrencik. Kern tossed a 125 pitches.
The six seniors on Catholic's roster include Long, Shirato, Culbert, Hainly, Justin Morrison and Bryan Bates. Half of them are planning on heading into the Armed Forces. Culbert and Morrison are off to the Navy, and Shirato is bound for the Marines.
"My seniors are the only reason I'm here. They came to my door and asked me to coach this team," reflected Hargett, a longtime and still active City-County youth coach. "I told the other six that are coming back that now we know what's at the end of the road. We have to get in the gym and work that much harder because I guarantee you, one of those guys is going to be calling from some ungodly country wanting to know what our record is. Don't make me lie to them."