TJ rallies to stun West Mifflin on baseball field
Along the third base line at Winklevoss Field is where West Mifflin Area students gather to give support to their baseball team.
Actually, as much support as they give to their Titans is as much grief they give to the visitors.
Wednesday afternoon, it just happened to be a little less support for the home team and a little more grief directed toward the visitors, but what do you expect when the visitors are from Thomas Jefferson?
On this day, nobody was off limits for the fans ...not TJ coach Rich Krivanek, not pitcher Frank Szubra and especially not catcher Tyler Toboz.
But little did the West Mifflin faithful realize that those jeers tossed toward TJ just fueled their fire.
TJ rallied from a 6-0 deficit to explode for 18 runs and 15 hits while sending 32 batters to the plate over the final three innings and turned the Section 4-AAA showdown for first place in a complete and utter rout by beating the Titans for the first time since 2007, 19-8.
"Let me tell you, West Mifflin has some great fans," Krivanek said. "A little annoying, but they are in the game and I think they gave us some energy. We came out lackadaisical a little bit. I think we had a little jitters in the beginning. When their fans got into the game that kind of fired us up."
The win put Thomas Jefferson (9-1, 10-5) in sole possession of first place in the section with four games left. West Mifflin fell to 8-2 in the section and 10-4 overall.
"What should've been one of the best games all season and it turned into a blowout," West Mifflin coach Jeff Kuzma said. "We lost. That's about it."
But the Titans lost in a way that Kuzma has rarely, if ever, been a part of in his more than a decade with the Titans. In Kuzma's words, "the wheels fell off."
West Mifflin jumped out to an early 6-0 lead as they pounded TJ starter Szubra for eight hits in the first three innings. Kevin Quinn, Ricky Olasz, Brian Ripper and Billy Hodgetts all had run-scoring hits in the second and a solo blast by Everett Lesko in the third.
"We knew coming in that they were a hard hitting team who key on the fastball," Szubra said. "They came out of the gate and started to hit the fastball hard. After they started putting up the first couple of runs we decided we needed to go more offspeed."
Szubra went away from the fastballs and went with more curves, sliders and changeups and it worked.
Szubra allowed only two hits after Lesko's homer and struck out eight of his 10 after the longball.
"It seemed like everything he was throwing they were hitting hard," Krivanek said. "He started to throw his offspeed stuff for strikes and made some great adjustments."
Those adjustments weren't limited to just TJ's pitching. After managing only three hits through the first four innings off West Mifflin starter Jeff Ziegler, the Jags' offense exploded, and it all can be traced back to an at bat by Toboz in the fifth.
Trailing 6-1 at the time, TJ loaded the bases off of Ziegler with one out with the kid nicknamed "Tater" coming to the plate.
Ziegler got ahead of Toboz in the count early, before finally getting it to a full count.
Toboz drilled the payoff pitch over the fence in left field for a grand slam and got TJ back into the game at 6-5.
"I was just trying to stay alive," Toboz said. "I was just trying to find a gap somewhere to get some runs in. I was protecting until I got a pitch that I wanted."
Toboz got some added determination when the West Mifflin student fans kept antagonizing him with the chant "Tater tot."
"That fired me up," Toboz said.
Krivanek believed so, too.
"Tater showed some emotion coming around third base," Krivanek said. "I knew he was real happy he hit that ball real hard."
While TJ was celebrating, Kuzma was second guessing himself. He contemplated yanking his ace when Toboz came to the plate with the bases loaded.
"I was actually ready to go to Ripper before that at bat," Kuzma said. "I looked at the matchup and liked it with Ziggy."
Kuzma lifted Ziegler for Ripper after the grand slam and Matt Warhola greeted him with a solo shot to tie the game at 6-6.
After that, it was all TJ.
The Jags sent at least nine batters to the plate in each of the final three innings, scoring 18 times.
"When your wheels fall off as bad as they did in that inning it is tough to come back," Kuzma said.
The trio of Bruno Natter (4-for-5, 3 runs, 2 RBI), Greg Schneider (3-for-5, 2 runs, 2 RBI) and Warhola (3-for-4, 2 runs, 2 RBI) combined to go 10-for-14 with seven runs scored and six RBI.
Rob Nahay added a pair of hits and two RBI; Szubra two RBI; Rock Marcheleta two RBI and Ryan Ruffing (two hits) to go along with Toboz's five RBI.
"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves," Szubra said. "We are fortunate enough to have an explosive offense. That is why we have the confidence that no matter how much we are down that we can come back."
West Mifflin got three hits from Quinn and three from Lesko.
TJ now focuses its attention to winning an outright section title. They shared a section title in 1989 and again in 2007.
"I don't want to be arrogant by saying it, but now we want the section title," Krivanek said.