Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Three-time reigning legion baseball champs go down quickly in county playoffs

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The thing about the playoffs, especially in a sport like baseball, is that the grind of the regular season is sometimes unfairly condensed. Have trouble getting key hits? It might show up in the playoffs. Unlucky bounces? They might happen in the playoffs too. Facing an especially hot pitcher? That will definitely show up in the playoffs. Unfortunately, for Gaithersburg Post 295, all three things happened in one game, as they were eliminated from the Montgomery County Division of the American Legion playoffs with a 3-1 loss to Damascus Post 171 at Ridge Road Regional Park in Germantown on Thursday.

‘‘There were times this season when we really struggled to put together runs,” Gaithersburg Post 295 manager Rick Price said. ‘‘And, we got unlucky that we drew Brett [Hamman] tonight. He’s a good pitcher.”

In fact, Hamman was a great pitcher on Thursday night. Both teams had lost their opening-round games — Post 295 dropped a decision to cross-town rival Gaithersburg Post 104 and Damascus had fallen to Laurel — and so both teams were playing for their lives in the double-elimination tournament. Facing that prospect, Hamman, who pitched at Covenant Life last spring and will pitch at Florida Atlantic University next year, bore down on Post 295 hitters. Though Post 295’s lineup included John Brauch, who entered the game hitting .407 with 12 runs batted in, Matt Civetti (four home runs, 24 RBI) and Kevin Johnson (four home runs, 16 RBI), Hamman did not hesitate to attack those hitters. In fact, when he got in trouble he got even tougher, pitching to contact and letting his fielders make plays. He got out of jams in the second, fourth and fifth innings, as Gaithersburg Post 295 left seven runners in scoring position.

‘‘Last year I got behind on hitters and it hurt me,” Hamman said. ‘‘This year, I’ve really concentrated on making sure that I am throwing strikes. When the defense is there, it makes my job easier. Everybody was making plays and it was a total team effort. We got the job done.”

Gaithersburg’s run was the only time in the game when Hamman, who went the full seven innings, was treated roughly. In the bottom of the third inning, Johnson led off with a single, stole second and scored on a hit by Johann Knee. That was all that Post 295 (21-16 overall) could manage.

‘‘Kevin Brady [of Gaithersburg Post 104] overmatched us the other night and Brett overmatched us tonight,” Price said. ‘‘It was tough.”

What was also tough for Gaithersburg was to look back at what might have been, had it not been for the second inning. Charlie Cononie retired the first four Damascus batters he faced in the game, but then gave up a run-scoring double to designated hitter Kevin Story. The next batter, Kevin Molesworth, lined a two-strike hit off Cononie’s leg, and as it skittered into right field, Story scored. Shaken, Cononie threw a wild pitch, allowing Molesworth to advance to third, and then allowed another single to Kevin Hamerski that drove in the third and final run of the inning. Though Damascus (22-18) could not score again, it got all the offense it needed.

Though the season ends early for Post 295 — it had won the county title the past three seasons — it does not end without hope. The team advanced to the final of the Blue-Gold Classic in Utica, N.Y., and put up some fine offensive numbers on the season, boasting a team average of .312, with 17 home runs in 35 games heading into the playoffs. And, every player on its roster is eligible to return next summer. That gives Price hope that if they are in this position again next year, his players may yet come through with the clutch hits they did not get this time.

‘‘We look at the overall season as a success,” Price said. ‘‘We really struggled at the beginning of the year, but then we turned it around. We had a chance to finish the year in first place if it wasn’t for some late losses. They can all come back, and we are building for next year.”