Highlands fails to make postseason
HARRISON -- Some might argue that the Highlands baseball team got better as the season went on.
Problem is, so did Hampton pitcher Jason Steen last night as the Golden Rams' must-win game progressed under the lights at Highlands.
Steen allowed three hits and struck out a season-high 12 batters, including five of the last seven he faced, to lead Hampton to a 6-5 win on the final night of Section 1-AAA play.
The game was played in ideal conditions with no wind and warm temperatures, but it won't win any awards for aesthetic beauty. The teams combined for seven errors and six wild pitches, but the game settled the playoff picture in the section.
Hampton (11-7, 8-4) had already made the playoffs, but with a win on Senior Night, Highlands (9-6, 6-6) could have forged a tie for third place and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2003.
"We had our opportunities, but we didn't make the plays," Highlands coach Chas Simoni said. "We knew we would see Steen. He faced us earlier this season, but I had a gut feeling we'd see him tonight. He pitched well, and Hampton is a good ball club."
Steen, a hard-throwing left-hander, also tripled to drive in a run during a long first inning when the Talbots scored three runs.
Steen pitched in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game and in the semifinals last season when the Talbots finished runner-up to Pine-Richland.
He blanked Highlands, 1-0, earlier this season.
"This was our last section game of the season, and I wanted to finish with a bang," Steen said.
"There were some situations that, I think, took him out of his rhythm," Hampton coach Gary Wilson said. "Jason is a battler. He battled all year. It was nice to see him bear down tonight."
Hampton led, 3-0, until the bottom of the third when Highlands senior shortstop Nick Glesk doubled to drive in Dean Grabigel for the Rams' first run.
Glesk moved to third on a wild pitch, and Zak Petrak's sacrifice fly scored him to make it 3-2.
Hampton went up, 4-2, when a throwing error allowed Steve Van Atta to score from second in the top of the fifth.
Highlands had its best inning in the fifth as the Rams rallied to take the lead.
Glesk doubled again, this time getting a towering shot into the night sky to drop near left fielder Jeff Cully, allowing pinch-hitter Danny Jackson to score to make it 4-3.
Then, a wild pitch brought home Grabigel to tie it before a bunt-single by Petrak scored Glesk for a 5-4 Highlands lead.
"We thought this would be a playoff-type atmosphere tonight and it was," Wilson said. "There was a great crowd here; we talked about that several times tonight."
A key play in the fifth inning occurred when Vince Yandura of Highlands was picked off at second base by catcher Matt Pirollo with no one out.
A wild pitch by Highlands starter P.J. Fleck allowed the tying run to score in the sixth.
The play followed a fine defensive play by third baseman Petrak, who saved a run by diving for a sharp grounder and promptly throwing home to back-up catcher Rob Rutkowski, who tagged out Cully.
Hampton went small-ball to score the winning run.
Marcus Magister walked to start the inning, and went to second on a bunt single by Dan Kruper. On the play, Magister went into second hard, knocking the glove off of Grabigel.
Simoni was upset with the second-base umpire because the coach thought Magister did not attempt to slide, which would have been interference and an out.
"The umpire didn't see what I saw," Simoni said. "But that call didn't lose the game for us."
Steen then bunted safely to load the bases, and the wild pitch made it 6-5.
Highlands was retired in order in the home half of the seventh.
Simoni said he will miss his senior players, many of whom he has known for years.
"It's tough to see these kids go," Simoni said. "They have always had each other's backs. They're good kids."