West Mifflin clinches 2nd straight postseason berth with win over Southmoreland
From the outside, it seemed like a curious decision by West Mifflin softball coach Casey Phillips to send a runner home from second in the top of the first inning of a scoreless game knowing that Southmoreland center fielder Briana Bunner had a strong arm.
But knowing that Southmoreland could, and likely would, turn to Anna Marie Gatti on the mound at any time during Thursday's Section 4-AAA game, Phillips was going to take any chance he got.
Paige Flore was out by 20 feet, but West Mifflin got one other chance.
This time, the Titans didn't waste it.
Alyssa Cairns' third-inning infield single off freshman Katie Troisi pushed across Kacey Larson with the only run of the game as West Mifflin (13-2, 8-2) clinched its second consecutive playoff berth and inched closer to a section title with a 1-0 win over visiting Southmoreland (8-5, 6-4).
“We want to make the playoffs, win the section and play for a WPIAL championship,” Phillips said. “To clinch a playoff spot two years in a row is a huge deal for us and especially like this. This game had a playoff feel to it. Big games usually come down to pitching and defense, and this one was no different.”
Neither team made an error, and there were only eight hits.
Flore went the distance as she scattered three hits and with nine strikeouts. Flore allowed only one runner to reach second base: Troisi's third-inning leadoff double.
“We just didn't hit the ball,” Southmoreland coach Todd Bunner said. “That is very unusual for us. We usually hit the ball well, but we just couldn't put the bat on the ball.”
The Titans couldn't either. Well, at least when Gatti entered the game not long after West Mifflin took the lead.
All five of West Mifflin's hits, including two by Cairns, came within the first 12 batters of the game, or when Gatti wasn't in the game.
Gatti, a Syracuse recruit, struck out the first four batters she faced and didn't allow a ball to leave the infield during her 3 1⁄3 innings.
Gatti didn't allow a baserunner until she walked Amber Cook in the sixth. That's also when she aggravated a knee injury that's been hampering her throughout the year. Gatti stayed in the game to pitch to the final three batters.
“Anna Marie has just been working her way into it, and we can't overuse her right now,” Bunner said. “I didn't want to start her. I wanted to see how far our freshman could go. If we see them in the playoffs, maybe they will see Anna for seven.”
West Mifflin had a chance to jump on Southmoreland in the first when Flore led off with a single then stole second. After one out, Cairns singled up the middle. Phillips said he would send Flore again if the same situation would arise.
“We want to be aggressive on offense,” Phillips said. “So much has to happen for us not to score there. She made a great play, but so much has to go right for them. She is going to score on that same play 99 times out of 100.”
The game remained scoreless until the third when the Titans used some small ball tactics.
Larson walked and moved to second on Flore's sacrifice bunt and then to third on Chelsea Hess's single. Hess stole second, putting runners and second and third for Cairns, who hit a slow roller to second baseman Kristen Suhan that scored Larson.
“They made plays today, and we didn't,” Bunner said. “Whenever playoffs come around, it is going to be a different beast. We just have to make sure we make it in.”
Southmoreland put runners on base in all but the first and seventh innings but couldn't solve Flore.
“It's a healthy competition between (Flore and Gatti),” Phillips said. “It's two great pitchers going after each other. If that doesn't bring out the best of you, I don't know what will.”