Thomas Jefferson's win over EF clinches playoff spot in Section 4-AAA
With only one game remaining, it might seem that there would be some clarity in the Section 4 playoff race.
To be fair, three WPIAL Class AAA postseason berths have been claimed. But that doesn't mean the morass behind first place South Park has been completely rectified.
Thomas Jefferson (11-7, 7-4) became the first to poke its head out of the muck and snatch one of the two remaining guaranteed postseason slots when it trampled Elizabeth Forward, 19-4, Friday in four innings. The Jaguars, who got a six RBI from Jared Carranza, are tied with Belle Vernon for second place.
“You have four teams battling for two spots,” first-year Thomas Jefferson coach Kevin Gryboski said. “It all comes down to Monday. It's a big day, and we'll see what happens.”
Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon may have locked up the guaranteed slots, but WPIAL rules state that teams involved in ties for second and third that cannot be broken all move into the tournament. The Jaguars will play at West Mifflin, a team it defeated, 5-3, the first time around, while Elizabeth Forward (12-6, 6-5) hosts a Leopards squad it lost to, 8-7, in their first meeting.
If West Mifflin and/or Elizabeth Forward win their section finales, they would earn playoff spots.
“We just put ourselves in a situation where we have to win Monday,” Elizabeth Forward coach Frank Champ said. “It just made things a lot more difficult.”
It might not have happened were it not for one seemingly insignificant play in the bottom of the third.
Thomas Jefferson opened up a 5-1 lead heading into the third, but Elizabeth Forward ground out three runs to get back within one. Warriors relief pitcher Ryan Wardropper then picked up two quick outs on four pitches in the bottom of the inning, and it appeared they were headed for the dugout with a chance to tie the game.
Instead, Tony Romanella singled then Eric Collohan beat out a high chopper to third to extend the inning. The infield hit turned the tide as Thomas Jefferson parlayed his hustle into nine two-out runs that gave the Jaguars an insurmountable 14-4 lead.
“We had a couple balls hit down third base that we should have made (plays on) and a couple in the outfield,” Champ said. “I preached all season long about making the routine plays, and balls in the air that long, you've got to make the plays. Once we didn't make that play, it was just a snowball effect.”
Jake Benack, Colton Booher and Carranza each drove in two runs in the inning as every player in the lineup reached base and scored a run. Benack was the catalyst for the offense throughout as he went 4 for 4 with a double, two RBI, a stolen base and four runs scored.
“Jake's been doing that all year for us in the two-hole,” Gryboski said. “Ever since I moved him up he's been hitting the ball, and, defensively he's been making plays, and that's what you need out of the two-hole hitter.”
Perhaps the strangest thing was how the game ended. With one out in the fourth, Jared Carranza hit a walk-off grand slam that bounced off the top of the left-field fence.
It was the fourth walk-off ending for Thomas Jefferson this season, but none was as strange as a grand slam ending a 15-run mercy rule game.
“We played well, and we hit the ball well,” Gryboski said. “We put the ball in play, and the outcome was tremendous.”