Sewickley Academy baseball playing for playoff positioning

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 5:57 p.m.

Sewickley Academy baseball coach Andrew Heck was hoping this season would be different.

In the span of 24 hours last week, the Panthers had two chances to assert a measure of control over their postseason fate.

The Panthers lost a pair of tight games late last week to the teams they're chasing in the Section 5-A standings and are in line to enter the 2014 WPIAL playoffs as the either the second- or third-place team from the section.

The three playoff teams from Section 5-A will be Vincentian, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Sewickley Academy. The Royals have clinched the section title. The only thing left to be decided at the start of this week was whether OLSH would be second with Sewickley Academy third or if the Panthers could jump up into second place.

“Last season, we were considered third in the section even though we tied for second place,” Heck said. “If you finish second in the section, you get a better seed in the top eight of the WPIAL draw.”

As the No. 3 team from Section 5-A last season, the Panthers lost to California in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs by a score of 7-4.

Sewickley Academy (6-5) lost a road contest to OLSH, 4-3, last Thursday night, then dropped a 4-2 decision to Vincentian on Friday afternoon.

The Panthers managed just three hits in Friday's loss to the Royals.

In three section losses this season, Sewickley Academy has scored a total of six runs.

Conversely, the Panthers have racked up 43 runs in their four section victories to date, an average of 10.75 runs per game.

“Our hitters have been really aggressive with pitches in our counts,” Heck said.

Heck has three hitters batting .400 or better through the season's first 11 games. Joey Nagel leads the team at .471, followed by Mike Manzinger (.438) and John Nagel (.400).

Joe Nagel also leads the team in hits (16) and runs batted in (11) and has the only home run for the Panthers in 2014.

Manzinger has a team-high 13 runs scored and has stolen five bases without being caught.

Sam Duerr owns the team lead in doubles with five on the year.

Heck has seen improvement in his team's defensive effort since last season, which has helped support the pitching staff.

“These guys know if they make the routine plays you give yourself the opportunity to win every game,” Heck said. “If you make a spectacular play, that's great, but we need to make the routine plays.”

Sewickley Academy has been getting strong pitching performances from its trio of starters — Duerr, Joe Nagel and Drew Johnson — for the better part of this season.

“These pitchers make my life easy,” Heck said. “I have three strong starting arms.

“All of them can go out and win a ball game for us.”

Duerr began the week with a miniscule 0.44 earned run average. He's surrendered just 12 hits and a single earned run in 16 innings on the hill.

Johnson owns a 2.17 ERA and has struck out 20 batters in 19 13 innings of work this season. Joe Nagel has a team-best two wins under his belt and a 3.68 ERA.

No matter who happens to be at the plate or on the mound during a big moment when the playoffs do get under way, Heck is confident that his players will adhere to the philosophy he's been instilling in them all season.

“One thing I've always stuck to is taking it one pitch at a time, one inning at a time, one game at a time,” Heck said. “If we can do that in a successful manner, we'll be a successful team.”

Kevin Ritchart is a freelance writer.

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