Ace helps Hopewell move on in playoffs
When Hopewell pitcher Stefan Mrkonjac entered the game in the fourth inning, he had trouble with his control.
He quickly found it, and No. 3 Hopewell squeezed out two runs in the sixth inning as it rallied for a 2-1 win against No. 6 Greensburg Salem in a WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal Wednesday at the Burkett Complex in Robinson Township.
In the semifinals Monday or Tuesday, Hopewell (18-3) will play Belle Vernon, which defeated No. 2 Mars, 7-1.
With the game scoreless, pitcher Tim Hughes walked the leadoff batter. Hopewell coach Joe Rubino then called for his ace, but Mrkonjac allowed a single by Greg Neumann, hit Craig Walor and walked Rege Garris to force in Sam Mattei.
After a quick talk from the pitching coach, Mrkonjac found his groove, retiring the final 12 batters.
“He was rushing his mechanics,” Rubino said. “He got it corrected, and the last couple of innings he was pretty unbelievable.
“The way he started, my heart jumped into my throat at that point. But he's a warrior and, as uptight as I was, he was equally as calm. He struck with it because he knows what he can do and went out and did it.”
Mrkonjac struck out seven during the final four innings, including six in a row.
“We loaded the bases twice and let them off the hook, especially when you have no outs,” Greensburg Salem coach Jim Stewart said. “Patrick (Boyer) pitched great for us. Anytime you allowed two runs, especially with our team, you think it would be enough. We met three excellent pitchers in the playoffs.”
Greensburg Salem could only muster two singles. It left the bases loaded in the third and fourth.
Boyer allowed five hits, and both runs were unearned. Greensburg Salem's defense picked off two runners and cut another down at the plate on a wild pitch.
Hopewell finally scored in the sixth when Mrkonjac reached on an error. He moved to second on a wild pitch, and Hughes walked.
Logan Johnston singled home Mrkonjac, and both runners advanced a base on a throw to the plate. That's when Rubino called for a squeeze: Dave Claypole getting the bunt down with Hughes scoring.
“We scouted them on Tuesday, and we told the team they sort of play like we do,” Rubino said. “They're a scrappy bunch, and runs come at a premium and you have to take advantage of your opportunities.
“Even though we were failing to get a clutch hit, to our players' credit, they kept with it. We didn't get frustrated. They knew if they kept battling, good things would happen.”
Paul Schofield is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5095 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.