It didn’t look good for Paul VI’s starting pitcher Joseph Salzano three batters into the bottom of the first Saturday afternoon. Working with a two-run cushion in a championship elimination game, the junior gave up clean base hits to the first three Bishop McNamara batters and gave back a run before even recording an out.
It took a wacky double play off the bat of McNamara cleanup hitter Tayler Stiles for Salzano to finally settle in and in doing so extend the Panthers season.
Salzano retired 14 consecutive batters after that initially offensive onslaught from the Mustangs and lead Paul VI to a 3-2 victory over McNamara at Shipley Field at University of Maryland, evening the WCAC championship series at one game apiece.
“After those first three batters I’m hoping they start hitting some of those hard hit balls at us instead of in the holes,” said Paul VI head coach Billy Emerson, “But that’s just baseball is in a nutshell you just have to throw strikes, make good pitches and force contact to get guys out and [Salzano] did a great job of that tonight.
Salzano would finish with a complete game, allowing just two runs on five total hits and zero walks. Salzano’s lone strikeout ended the game when he snuck a curveball by McNamara catcher Corey Fields.
“I don’t strike a lot of people out, but I work to get a lot of groundballs,” said Salzano, who has beaten McNamara all three times he’s faced them this season. “In the first inning I was just thinking about how well they hit the ball and somehow I just found it after that.”
With two on and no outs in that first inning, Stiles hit a deep fly ball, which Paul VI’s center fielder bobbled and caught with his back against the wall. He threw the ball back into the infield to double off Conner Hax, who didn’t realize a clean catch had been made. The play helped get the Panthers out of the first inning and more importantly allowed Salzano to get into a groove.
Most of Paul IV’s offense came in the top of the first inning, before Salzano even took the mound. Panther left fielder Mitchell Aker led the game off with a double in the right field gap off of Mustang starter Jack Hopkins and scored on an RBI single from Richard Mancari, who had a part in all three runs the Panther’s scored Saturday. Tyler Alger’s two-out RBI single scored Mancari in the first inning to create Salzano’s two-run cushion.
Hopkins also went the distance Saturday, giving up three runs on six hits and six walks over seven. The Mustangs certainly battled, consistently getting out of jams to stay within striking distance.
“If there’s 21 outs in the game, our kids are going to play really hard for 21 outs,” said Larry Prange. “And we had confidence in Jack to get us out of those spots.”
Despite the effort, McNamara just couldn’t supply the offense to help out Hopkins.
Coye Gerald ended Salzano’s streak of 14 straight batters retired with a leadoff single in the sixth, stole a base, and scored on a Brad Sullivan single, but that was all the Mustangs could muster Saturday.
This win pushes the series to a winner-take-all game three Sunday at 1 p.m., in which both teams will be vying for special championships, albeit for different reasons.
“A championship would be huge for the school,” said Prange, whose team has been an underdog for the entire tournament after a 10-16 regular season. “It would be great for these kids and the first the school baseball championship, I know how big this would be.”
Paul VI won the WCAC championship in 2007 and 2009, but Emerson’s decision to step down after the end of this season pushes this shot a title to another level for the Panthers.
“That’s the goal for everyone on this team, to win it for Coach Emerson,” said Salzano.
And in turn, Emerson’s goal is to win it for everyone on the team. He said, “Cliché-wise it would be great to ride off into the sunset, but I really hope that the kids get it more than for me.”
Sunday, Paul VI’s Braedon Lawson will take the hill against Conor Hax with a trip into the sunset at stake.