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Offense carries load for Franklin Regional

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Michael Love | For the Murrysville Star
Franklin Regional senior Nick Vento follows through on a swing during a home game against Plum on Thursday, April 18, 2013. The Panthers lost, 8-1.
Michael Love | For the Murrysville Star
Franklin Regional senior Danny McGrath awaits a pitch from a Plum pitcher during a home game Thursday, April 18, 2013, at Haymaker Field in Murrysville. The Panthers lost, 8-1.

When Norwin took a 9-0 lead over the Franklin Regional baseball team in the first inning of a game last week, Panthers coach Bobby Sadler didn't worry.

In a slugfest, he counts on the Panthers' ability to more than hold their own.

“These kids, I don't think they believe any time that we're down (that) we're ever out of a game,” Saddler said. “They know what they can do offensively.”

After last week, so does Norwin.

Franklin Regional roared back from that early 9-0 deficit to beat Norwin, 15-14, in a nonsection game April 16. Junior Brandon Nania provided the winning blow with a grand slam in the seventh inning.

“We just battled back as a team, and I got the opportunity with the bases loaded and did what I had to do with the ball,” Nania said.

The offensive outburst against Norwin was just the latest this season for Franklin Regional (9-3, 3-2), which currently sits in third place in Section 3-AAAA. The Panthers are averaging 9.75 runs per game heading into Wednesday afternoon's section game at McKeesport.

The Panthers added to their totals with a 20-5 victory Monday over Woodland Hills, pounding out 18 hits and scoring four runs in the first inning, nine in the second and seven in the third. Nick Vento, Brent Myers, Nick DiDiano and John Bondi had four hits apiece for Franklin Regional in the three-inning rout.

“A lot of these guys are returning from last year, and they've more than matched their output of what they did last season,” Saddler said. “We knew that in order to be competitive and to be where we'd want to be that we'd need those numbers to spike up.”

Led by seniors Danny McGrath (.522) and Vento (.514), the Panthers have five players currently batting better than .400. Bondi, a sophomore, is hitting .455, Nania is batting .429 and junior Patrick Kukalis is at an even .400.

McGrath, who began the season with 18 hits in his first 27 at-bats, said the improved offense comes down to extensive work during the offseason.

“Starting in October (or) November, we did conditioning (and) strength training three days a week with one of our gym teachers,” McGrath said. “He put us through a pretty good program, and then in January we started doing actual baseball stuff along with the strength training.

I think that was beneficial, especially me. Seeing a lot more pitches thrown during those practices, along with the strength and conditioning — it's helped us hit the ball really well.”

The extra baseball work in the offseason is helping the players recognize pitches more easily, which helped Nania on his winning grand slam against Norwin.

“They'd been working me (with offspeed pitches) all day, and they gave me a fastball finally,” he said. “I took it where I needed to take it.”

Improved pitch recognition is benefiting the Panthers in another area as well: their strikeout numbers. Panthers batters struck out 37 times in the team's first 12 games, an average of barely over three per game.

“Our coaches have really stressed (two-strike hitting) over this offseason and even into this season to this point,” McGrath said. “(They tell us) just to battle up there, just put the ball in play. Kids are maybe bound to make an error (and) boot a ball.

“Our mentality is to waste all the bad pitches and hopefully find one you can hit, drive or put in play.”

While the offense is leading the way for the Panthers, McGrath and Nania said the team needs to get better on the defensive side of the diamond. The team committed some fielding miscues on bunts in an 8-1 section loss to Plum last Thursday.

If the team wants to make the playoffs and advance, McGrath said, the defense needs to improve.

“Our hitting has thankfully been very good to this point, and we'd like to definitely keep that up,” McGrath said. “But I know for me personally, I've committed a couple errors this season.

“We've really focused into our defense and working on that to cut down on the errors and support our pitchers more.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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