UNIVERSITY PARK — Throughout the PIAA Class A Tournament, the Clarion baseball team has made their way through the bracket by playing almost perfect defense with almost just as perfect pitching.
The Bobcats fell behind in the first inning on Thursday afternoon in the championship game against Meyersdale as they gave up two runs, and that was all the Red Raiders needed.
Meyersdale pitcher Riley Christner used a blazing fastball that sat in the upper 80s for most of the game, and touched 90 miles per hour on the radar gun once. It resulted in a two-hit shutout as Meyersdale defeated Clarion for the Class A state title, 2-0, at Penn State University’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Over his complete game and two hits, Christner didn’t walk a batter and struck out 12 Bobcats.
“We couldn’t solve that kid,” said Clarion coach Rob Jewett. “We needed that clutch hit that we’ve been missing a lot of this entire postseason. It just didn’t show up this game.”
“He threw hard –harder than we’ve seen all year. He’s a top-notch pitcher. We started to pick up his curveball towards the end, and that threw us off. You have to give him credit where it’s due.”
One of the big surprises of the game came before a pitch was even thrown by either side as Jewett went to freshman Skylar Rhoades as his starting pitcher.
Clarion had pitched Reed Anthony through most of the postseason, and he was ineligible on Thursday after throwing 95 pitches over six innings in Monday’s semifinal win.
Rhoades came into the game throwing only 10 1/3 innings for the season. He was 3-0 with a 4.74 earned run average coming into Thursday. Rhoades hadn’t seen any action on the mound since Clarion’s last game of the regular season on May 18 –a 15-5 win in six innings over Brockway.
After a three-up, three-down inning to start the game with Clarion at the plate, Rhoades went out for the bottom of the first.
Logan McKenzie led off with a walk before Rhoades got Christner to fly out. Bryce Kretchman then doubled to put two runners in scoring position.
Rhoades then continued to struggle with control as he walked Zach Hotchkiss and Max Caton, with Caton’s walk bringing home McKenzie for Meyersdale’s first run.
After the Caton walk, Jewett went with a quick hook and turned to Ryan Anthony to take the mound.
“It was a gamble,” said Jewett of starting a freshman in the state championship game. “It didn’t pay off like I thought it would.”
On the next batter, a passed ball that tipped off the Clarion catcher’s mitt allowed Kretchman to score to give the Raiders the 2-0 lead.
But from there, Ryan Anthony took over as he got a strikeout and a groundout to end the inning.
The right-hander sat down his next six batters, as well, giving him a string of eight batters in a row retired. Ryan Anthony allowed just two hits in 5 2/3 innings. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out three.
“Ryan did a tremendous job coming in and settling down,” said Jewett. “I knew Ryan was going to throw strikes, so I wanted him to come in, rather than him start and use him up. But would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. I was pleasantly surprised that he shut them down as much as he did. He kept us in the game. The defense kept us in the game. That’s been our M.O. all year.”
Meanwhile, Christner mowed down his first 10 batters of the game before Ryan Anthony helped himself with a base hit that was just inside the right field line. After a lineout, Cameron Craig executed a perfect hit-and-run with Anthony for a base hit.
In the next at-bat, Craig took off for second base early before Christner even delivered a pitch trying to get into a rundown to get a possible run, but Christner gave Craig the base to put two runners in scoring position.
Reed Anthony followed with a fly ball to right field that he just got under too much for a flyout to end the inning.
“If Reed kind of levels it out and hits a line drive, I think we’re still playing,” said Jewett.
Clarion also ran into some trouble in the bottom of the fourth as Meyersdale had runners at first and second with one out, but Anthony got Devin Kretchman to ground into a 5-3 double play to end the inning.
Bobcat third baseman Dominic Fleming also made a slick play in the bottom of the fifth after turning the double play. The senior went to his knees to knock the ball down, picked up the ball and fired over to first base to rob Meyersdale’s McKenzie of a hit.
“He’s been doing it at first base and third base. He doesn’t make it look pretty. He’s like a hockey goalie. He’ll knock it down and throw it over.”
After the fourth inning, the only baserunner that Christner allowed was a hard-hit ball by Rhoades that went for an error on the Meyersdale third baseman. Rhoades ended up at second on the play.
Christner struck out the next two batters, all three batters in the sixth and got the final count on a punchout as well.
Clarion ended the season at 21-4.
“It’s tremendous these guys went as far as they did,” said Jewett. “I’ve been saying all year I’m glad I’m just along for the ride. They’re the ones doing it. They’re the ones out there making the plays.
“These guys have to hold their heads high. They’re the underdogs and we made it a close game –2-0, I’ll take that. I wish we were on the other end of it, but I told them to enjoy the moment. I’m proud to be their coach.”
Clarion will lose four players to graduation in Ryan Anthony, Reed Anthony, Fleming and catcher Kyle Patterson.