Sunday’s series-clinching 6-2 win by the Brookville Grays over the DuBois Rockets in the Federation League finals culminated one of the most unlikely turning of momentum that I’ve covered in local sports.
One-game upsets happen a lot, but a series where the underdog wins four games in five days after already losing the first two games of the best-of-seven series, that doesn’t fit neatly into any category.
Last Tuesday’s pre-game ceremony honoring Grays manager Bob McCullough was followed that night with a 9-1 loss to the Rockets, who upped their series scoring advantage to 14-1. They did wind up outscoring the Grays 25-23 for the entire series.
The Grays didn’t lose after Tuesday. McCullough mentioned magic after his Grays won it all. Was it?
“It’s really special. He’s such a special guy. He inspires all of us,” Grays shortstop Joey Lopez said of McCullough. “We get to play this game because of him and it’s amazing to see how much he loves the game, loves us and to give him a trophy it’s everything we could’ve imagined.
“It was his actions. He missed a few games early in the playoffs and him coming back and getting stronger and showing up. He started wearing his jersey for the finals and today he came in his full uniform, it just shows he’s strong and has so much fight in him and it inspired us.”
Realistically, the Grays breathed a sigh of relief after outlasting Sykesville in the semifinals. Anything more than avoiding a sweep at the hands of the Rockets was a bonus.
“I think everybody in the league had the perception that we were playing for second place because the Rockets were the Rockets, so we went into the third game and we were not going to not try hard,” said Jamison Rhoades, the 18-year-old BAHS graduate from this spring playing in his third season. “Then we won and saw they were beatable. We started to get that mindset and it started to snowball and we kept getting momentum. Our confidence went up, they had some injuries and it’s just one of those things in baseball.
“The Grays go a lot deeper than a summer ball team. It’s Brookville baseball, it’s Bobby McCullough and it’s Grays baseball. To win a title for him the way this year has gone for him and his health, it’s pretty cool.”
HUNTER GEER built up an impressive resume for the Babe Inzana Memorial Award for the league’s final MVP. He was 10-for-24 with two wins on the mound, including the two-inning relief stint Sunday and his eight-inning shutout in a 3-0 win in game four.
Geer also delivered the game-tying hit with two outs in game five, padded the team’s lead with a two-run single with two outs in the sixth in game six and preserved the Grays’ game four win by throwing out the would-be tying run to end the game last Friday.
And that’s not to diminish the vital veteran leadership of catcher Nathan Bonfardine, who caught the final four games of the series, all of them wins of course. Bonfardine was on the receiving end of five outfield assists for outs at the plate, including one in the fifth inning of Sunday’s game in a collision with Sean Sleigh. Bonfardine was shaken up, but stayed in the game.
His handling of the pitching staff, which was on fumes, was a vital part of the Grays’ success.
SPEAKING OF PITCHING, the Grays used 10 different pitchers to cover their 13 playoff games after using 19 arms to pitch the 200 innings needed to get through the regular season.
Cole Slaugenhoup, who was 6-for-13 at the plate in the finals, threw three-plus innings in game five and left with a 3-1 deficit in favor of Lopez. He kept his team in the game and that was the mission.
“That’s what it was. I’m not a pitcher by any stretch,” said Slaugenhoup, a 2021 Clarion High School graduate heading into his sophomore year at PSU-DuBois. “I can get the ball over the plate and that was the goal. We have as good of defense as anyone and I wanted to keep the game in reach and that’s kind of what I did. They were starting to get on me and we pulled the plug when we needed to.”
The Grays used Dane Lyle, who hadn’t thrown in a few years but had a few innings under his belt earlier this season before his start in game four, and he left the game trailing 5-1 after 2 1/3 innings. But he ate some valuable innings and the Grays rallied to win that game 8-7.
Then there was longtime Grays ace pitcher Thomas Plummer, who had lost his two previous playoff starts in a game one loss to the Rockets and was touched up for 14 runs in 2 2/3 innings in a loss to Sykesville in game two of the semifinal series.
“The biggest thing I knew that playing as long as I have that some days you might mess up and not have your best stuff, but the best way to get over that is to play again and do better that time,” Plummer said. “The best thing about baseball is getting second chances and I’ve been through that before and I knew I could come back and at least throw strikes and give my team a chance.”
Sunday, Plummer’s goal was to give his team four innings, but gave the Grays five and left trailing 2-1 before the Grays gambled by bringing in Geer, the likely best option for a game seven if needed.
“Coming in to today, I knew that my arm was not 100 percent and I knew we didn’t have much behind me,” Plummer said. “We’ve all been pitching and we were really short. We were all sore, so I knew that I had to push through it one more time and if I could go four, I was thinking that’s good enough. And then I felt good enough to get one more and after that it was time for somebody else here to finish it out.”
Enter Geer and the big gamble.
“We knew that Plum was going to give us everything he could,” Lopez said. “His arm was starting to get tired and Hunter told us he was good to go if we needed him and the thought was let’s not save pitching and let’s play for this game here and give it everything we have and it worked out.”
MORE ODDS AND ENDS — It’s a battle of attrition in any long playoff setup and that was the case for the Grays and Rockets, who both lost players to injuries and outside commitments as the series wore on. The Rockets’ loss of shortstop Garrett Brown to injury for the series after game four was a huge blow for the two-time defending champions. The Grays lost their leading hitter for the season in Brady Caylor after game two. … Tanner LaBenne wound up hitting 6-for-11 in the finals with two homers and five intentional walks in the six games. For the postseason, LaBenne hit .385 (15-for-39) with five homers and 13 RBIs in 13 games. … Dillon Wolbert hit .390 in the postseason (16-for-41) with two homers and nine RBIs. … The Grays finished the season playing 19 games in 26 days.