ALMEDIA — It’s easy to call Pine Grove the softball equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees: The unbeaten Cardinals have ripped the ball at a very Yankees-like .498 rate this season with 100 extra base hits and double-digit scoring in all but one of their first 24 games.
But make no mistake, Pine Grove can play small ball, too. Utilizing a combination of speed and bunts that put tremendous pressure on the Warrior Run defense, the Cardinals erupted for 7 runs in the fourth inning of the PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals at Central Columbia High School. Combined with the nearly flawless pitching of lefty Liv Lehman, Pine Grove advanced to state semifinals for the third time in three years with an 8-0 victory over the Defenders Wednesday afternoon.
Pine Grove, the District 11 champions, improved to 25-0 and will face either District 4 champion Bloomsburg or Delone Catholic, the District 3 runner-up, on Monday. Warrior Run, the District 4 runner-up, ends its season at 21-4.
Lehman, making her 100th career pitching appearance, was dominant the entire game but especially for the first three innings with eight strikeouts in that span, including the first five Defenders she faced.
“We stuck with the game plan we used all year: paint the corners in and out, off-speed once in a while, keep them off balance,” Pine Grove coach Ryan Leffler said. “Liv relies on her defense and the defense was outstanding today.”
Warrior Run’s Madi Waltman was solid in the stretch, too. The junior pitched out of mild jam — a walk and hit-batter put runners on with two outs — with a strikeout to end the threat.
After a 1-2-3 second inning, Waltman recorded the first out of the third inning but then walked lead-off hitter Katelyn Rittenbaugh — the owner of a sterling .727 batting average — who promptly stole second. But Waltman popped up Trish Kopinetz to third and retired Lehman on a comebacker to the mound.
“That was one of the best pitchers we faced all year,” Leffler said.
But in the fourth inning it all unraveled for the Defenders. After a walk to start the inning, Pine Grove coach Ryan Leffler had his batters bunt five straight times. That pressure on the Defenders defense led two a couple of errors and what easily amounted to Defenders worst inning of the season. With just one ball leaving the infield — a base hit to center by Kopinetz — the Cariinals built a 7-0 lead.
“Going into the game we thought we might have to play some small ball and we executed that real well today,” Leffler said. “(We wanted to) make them make the play. With our speed if you make a bobble, we are safe.”
“(Defensively) we were in that no-man’s land and they are really fast,” Defenders coach Garth Watson said. “They pushed bunts (but) we knew that coming in. It wasn’t a surprise.”
Pine Grove added a run in the fifth, again without the ball leaving the infield.
“It’s disheartening when they hit (only) two balls out of the infield and score eight runs,” Watson said. “We are better than that.”
With the Warrior Run lineup facing Lehman for the second time in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, the Defenders put together better at-bats, striking out just once and hitting three balls deep into the outfield. But no ball could find a gap.
Lauren Watson was the first Defenders base runner to reach base when Pine Grove committed an infield error in the sixth and Gracy Beachel broke up Lehman’s no-hit bid with one-out single to left in the seventh.
While 10 of the Cardinals left Central Columbia and headed back to Pine Grove for the high school graduation ceremony last night, only one Warrior Run starter — first baseman Amber Pennycofe — won’t be back next season.
“We’ll reload and just come back next year,” Watson said.
PIAA Class 3A Quarterfinal
at Central Columbia High School
Pine Grove 8, Warrior Run 0
Warrior Run 000 000 0 — 0 1 3
Pine Grove 000 710 x — 8-6-1
Madi Waltman and Jade Swartz; Liv Lehman and Trish Kopinetz.
WP: Lehman LP: Waltman
Pine Grove hitters: Lehman, 2-for-3, double.
Warrior Run hitters: Gracy Beachel, single.