Struggling to find his command in the first inning, Gov. Thomas Johnson High School starting pitcher Travis Phelps found himself in a most precarious position -- the bases were loaded with Damascus left-hander Eric Magas stepping to the plate with two out.
Then as if a switch was suddenly flipped, Phelps found the strike zone, resulting in a strikeout looking of Magas on an inside fastball. It followed a flurry of pitches on the outside corner to end the inning in what was a handful of pivotal plays the host Patriots made in a 5-2 win against the Swarming Hornets in a first-round 3A West Region playoff game Friday.
“I felt tight at first but throughout the game, I started loosening up, and then I finally started finding the strike zone,” said Phelps, who allowed two unearned runs on six hits (four of which did not get out of the infield) in seven innings of work with six strikeouts. “It definitely helps [having a lead most of the way] -- Just go in there and throw fastballs for strikes and everything worked out.”
Indeed it did as the Patriots (12-8), who will now face fourth-seeded Seneca Valley (9-5) Monday in a quarterfinal contest, grabbed the lead for good at 3-1 with a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth. A run-scoring single by Heath Dahlgren and an error in left field brought home the second run of the inning.
They increased that lead to 4-1 in the fifth on a triple to right field by catcher Mike Omelchenko, who also blasted a two-out double in the first inning that eventually resulted in the team's first run of the game. His shot in the fifth inning reached the right field wall and looked headed for the grass behind the fence off his bat.
“He was just throwing fastballs; I was just trying to keep my weight back on it and just hit it good and hope something happens,” Omelchenko said. “Halfway down first base, I kind of looked at it and thought it was gone. My coach said I slowed up a little there so I kind of got in trouble. I just tried to hit it good and it went pretty far.”
The Patriots struck again with a run in the sixth when Damascus shortstop Emory McMinn, with the infield drawn in, could not cleanly handle a hard groundball off the bat of David Larson to score Matt Myers from third. That run countered one scored by Damascus in the top of the sixth inning in a rally that was cut short by a leaping grab of a hard line drive at third base by Vaughn Parker with runners on first and third and two out.
“They made all the plays,” said Swarming Hornets first-year coach Greg Blake, who guided his squad to a 7-9 this spring. “The third baseman made a heck of a play at third. It was huge. Leadoff hitter with a line drive down the [opposite field], you probably get a guy on third base, maybe second and third. Two outs with my two hitter [coming up], who I think already had a hit or two.”
Instead, Phelps worked a 1-2-3 seventh inning to preserve the victory. He allowed one run in the third on a wild pitch and then one in the sixth on an infield single by Cameron Frazier to score Lewis, who reached base on an error to start the inning.
“You have to give their pitcher a lot of credit,” Blake said. “All year, we've struggled against that type of pitcher: Bringing a little heat with an off-speed pitch. That's why you saw a lot of bunts today, a lot of small ball.”
Thomas Johnson 5, Damascus 2
Damascus (7-9) 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 2 6 1
Thomas Johnson (12-8) 1 0 0 2 1 1 x 5 9 1
WP Travis Phelps. LP Eric Magas. 2B: Thomas Johnson Mike Omelchenko, Travis Phelps. 3B: Thomas Johnson Mike Omelchenko. RBI: Damascus Cameron Frazier. Thomas Johnson Mike Omelchenko, Brandon Berney, Heath Dahlgren, David Larson.