Q. Orchard’s O’Keefe is a one-hit wonder

Senior shackles Panthers as Cougars remain undefeated

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Everyone knew that the Quince Orchard High baseball team would be good this year. The defending Class 4A state champions are back, and after watching Matt O’Keefe, last year’s leadoff hitter and this year’s nominal No. 2 starter throw a gem of a one-hitter Monday, the rest of Montgomery County’s 4A squads know they’ve got an uphill battle.

O’Keefe, a senior who improved to 2-0, went the distance to lead the Cougars to a 5-0 win against host Paint Branch in only an hour and 35 minutes. Mixing curveballs and a mid-80s fastball, O’Keefe was nearly untouchable, facing only 22 batters all game. He issued only one walk and struck out six.

‘‘I started a few of the guys with curves,” O’Keefe said. ‘‘I kept them off-balance. A lot of their hitters crowd the plate, so I tried to bust them in.”

It worked. Only senior Chris Carey, who took the loss, was able to get a hit off of O’Keefe, ripping a triple to deep center field in the first inning. After that, O’Keefe got nasty, retiring the next eight batters and benefiting from, as Quince Orchard coach Jason Gasaway said, a defense that ‘‘always seemed to clean it up.” The Cougars nabbed the only other two Paint Branch baserunners, picking off one on a failed sacrifice bunt in the fifth inning and then picking off another when he took to wide a turn at second after a successful bunt in the sixth.

‘‘[O’Keefe] threw very well,” Paint Branch coach Drew Zachry said. ‘‘He used all his pitches, used both sides of the plate. When we get into the playoffs, this is the caliber of teams we’ll be playing, and we’ll need to get it done.”

The Cougars (8-0) led the entire game, thanks again to O’Keefe. After singling in the first, he eventually scored on a Carey wild pitch after stealing third.

‘‘Hopefully, I can help myself out there,” O’Keefe said. ‘‘Whenever I get on, I have the green light to go.”

Carey settled down and kept the Panthers (3-6) in the game until the third inning. That’s when the breeze blowing straight out to left field became a factor. The foul pole along the left-field line at Paint Branch generously listed at 302 feet, and despite a 30-foot-high net that is considered part of the wall, the porch is inviting.

‘‘We had a nice little talk before the game,” Gasaway said. ‘‘I told them if I see anybody dipping or diving, trying to hit one out, I’m going to pull them out of the game.”

Turns out, it didn’t take any concerted effort. After Carey, who went five innings and allowed four hits and four runs, had retired the first two batters in the third, he gave up a single to first baseman Mike Celenza. Next, senior catcher Eric Weller sent Carey’s first pitch over the fence.

‘‘I didn’t try and hit it out,” Weller said. ‘‘I had no idea if it was getting out. I saw the leftfielder come in and look like he was camped under it.”

That was more than enough for O’Keefe, who is locked in a duel with Celenza for Quince Orchard’s No. 2 starter role. Though Celenza is also undefeated, O’Keefe might have locked up the job. It was exactly the type of improvement that Gasaway wanted to see from his pitcher, who had struggled to find the plate in the Cougars’ 9-1 win over Walter Johnson on March 23.

‘‘We like to go after batters the first time around — mix things up, and keep them on their heels with the curve,” said Gasaway, who calls all the team’s pitches.

Junior David Moldawer gave the Cougars another home run, this one a line-drive shot to left-center off Panthers sophomore Travis Hart in the sixth. O’Keefe had already locked the game up by then.

Despite losing two of last year’s starters in Brett Fox and Joe Mattes, Quince Orchard is looking awfully tough again. If O’Keefe, who didn’t consider himself a pitcher last year, can repeat Monday’s dominance, the Cougars will be very hard to beat late in the season.

Can the Cougars win another state title?

‘‘We’re missing a few guys,” Weller said of last year’s seniors. ‘‘But we have the potential to win it.”