HAMBURG - Up 3-0 in the fourth inning with the reliable Isaac Blatt on the mound, the Palmyra baseball team was exactly where it wanted to be in Monday's opening-round state playoff clash with District 11 champion Palmerton.
And then, in the figurative blink of an eye, the feisty Cougars were somewhere they never really wanted to be: At the end of a thoroughly magical and memorable 2016 season.
A spring that began with mediocrity before ascending to excellence in the form of an epic 10-game win streak, came to an unsatisfying conclusion in a 7-6 loss to Palmerton in a PIAA Class AAA first round contest at Parkland High School.
Seemingly in charge with Blatt on the hill and a three-run lead in its pocket, Palmyra's fortunes suddenly changed when Palmerton exploded for seven runs - all with two outs - to close out the fourth inning and begin the end of a season the Cougars let go of most reluctantly.
They rallied within a run in the sixth, and brought the tying run to within 90 feet of home plate in their final at-bat before Zach Yingst was called out on strikes to end the game. Yingst lingered a long time at home plate, half not believing the borderline call, half not wanting to believe it was over.
"It's gonna be one of my favorites, because the kids really stepped up later in the year," said veteran Palmyra coach Tim Gingrich of a season that ended at 17-8 after a ho-hum 7-6 start. "We ran 10 games off, that's pretty impressive. I don't think we've ever done that before. Going from 7-6 to 17-6 and in the district final, you can't ask for anything more from these kids."
The Cougars clearly wanted more, though, shaking off last Thursday's 7-0 loss to Hamburg in the district title game to get a 3-0 jump on Monday.
Palmerton starter Zach Buck issued a bases-loaded walk to Jacob Wagner and an RBI single to Dylan Spagnolo in the second, and Bradey Powell added a run-scoring hit in the third to make it 3-0.
Palmyra put its first two hitters on in the fourth and appeared ready to add to its lead, but reliever Garrett Perschy wiggled out of trouble and his teammates responded and then some with the seven-run outburst in the bottom of the frame.
It featured five hits, two incredibly costly errors and a disputed call at first base and it was a blow that the Cougars would not fully recover from.
"It kinda unraveled a little bit," Gingrich said with a grimace. "We had a couple key errors, they had a couple key hits. It kinda snowballed on us, but I was proud of our kids coming back."
And come back they did, although the 13 runners left on base are evidence of how much more could have been accomplished.
Nonetheless, Palmyra roared back in the sixth, getting to within 7-6 via an RBI single by Blatt, a sac fly by Yingst, and a bases-loaded walk by Ryan James.
The Cougars then made a serious bid to tie in their final at-bat, when Blatt singled and scampered to second on a throwing error back to the infield. He later moved to third, agonizingly close to tying the game and breathing more life into a season he and his teammates weren't ready to see die.
"We had opportunities to come back and tie this game," Gingrich said. "We just fell one run short."
And because of that, the always torturous final bus ride home of the season awaited. In the finally tally, though, there were more joyful rides than not this spring.
"Every year it's tough," Gingrich said before addressing his squad one final time. "Especially for the seniors, because they came this far. You just try to tell them, 'Look back on the experience you just had. Not many teams get to do what you just did.' You console them a little bit. It's a long way home."
Especially for a team that had already come so far.