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Solid hitting, pitching leads Franklin Regional into postseason

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Franklin Regional's Patrick Kukalis is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run against Plum on Friday, May 3, 2013, at Plum High School.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Franklin Regional's Nick DiDiano delivers the pitch against Plum during a Friday, May 3, 2013, baseball game at Plum High School.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Franklin Regional's Danny McGrath readies for a tag against Plum during a Friday, May 3, 2013, baseball game at Plum High School.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Franklin Regional's John Bondi celebrates an out against Plum's Mike Maleski at second base during a Friday, May 3, 2013, baseball game at Plum High School.

Eleven times during its 18 regular-season games this season, the Franklin Regional baseball team scored in double digits. Not surprisingly, the Panthers won all of those games.

Perhaps more impressively, the two most recent times the Panthers scored just two runs, they also won.

Both are very encouraging signs as Franklin Regional prepares to enter the postseason next week.

“We've been doing a great job hitting the ball, getting lots of runs,” Panthers coach Bob Saddler said. “We've been able to put up some good numbers and have become a very good offensive team.

“But when we've had to pitch well and play defense — like last Friday versus Plum (a 2-0 win), we weren't scoring so much, and we got the pitching performance that's needed. That's just one way we've shown that we can succeed in any type of game. As long as they execute like we know how, I think we will be OK no matter what.”

Following Tuesday's 12-2, nonsection win over Penn Hills, Franklin Regional improved to 14-3. The Panthers completed Section 3-AAAA play at 8-2, in second place behind Central Catholic. The WPIAL playoffs are scheduled to begin next week.

The Panthers will finish a season with a winning record for the first time since 2008. This is their second consecutive season making the playoffs; Franklin Regional lost in the first round last year. The Panthers have the look of a contender this season.

“We've just got to take it a game at a time, but obviously the goal is the WPIAL championship,” senior shortstop Danny McGrath said. “We're good enough to beat anybody we come up against. Hopefully, our bats stay alive, and we feel like if that happens we have a chance at the WPIAL championship, absolutely.”

McGrath, whose .540 batting average is tops on the team, is part of a senior core of three leaders who will play in college next year. McGrath is a California (Pa.) recruit, center fielder Nick Vento (.509 average) will play at Washington & Jefferson and pitcher/first baseman Nick DiDiano (four pitching wins) is headed to Mount Aloysius.

“All three seniors lead by example, and they've done a great job at that this year,” Saddler said.

DiDiano's all-around value was shown when, over a five-game span, he had a four-hit game in a win against Woodland Hills and pitched a complete-game shutout in a victory at Plum.

The leadoff man in the order, McGrath has been a standout offensively and defensively. Vento's behind him — both in the field and in the batting order at No. 3.

“Having those two guys up the middle eases your mind when anything's hit,” Saddler said.

Left-handers DiDiano and sophomore Justin Johnson and junior right-hander Brett Myers handle most of the pitching duties for a Franklin Regional team that has allowed one run or less in four of its past six games.

“The pitching's been giving us a chance all season,” McGrath said. “That's all we need for the offense — a chance. We feel like if we are kept in the game we'll hit enough to win.”

Behind the plate, calling games, throwing out runners and as the team's cleanup hitter, junior catcher Brandon Nania has been a primary contributor to the Panthers.

Junior outfielder Patrick Kukalis, sophomore second baseman John Bondi, sophomore first baseman Nick Munson and junior left fielder Colin Jonov are other parts of the dynamic lineup.

“Any time you win (15) games you have things going your way,” Saddler said. “Our guys are doing a really job showing up every single day, playing their best baseball right now.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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