SAYLORSBURG - Heading into game one of his team's three-game playoff series with Wind Gap, Birches' manager Allen Faust decided to hand Russell Baldino the ball.
As it has been for most of the legion season, Faust's decision turned out to be the correct one.
Baldino fired a complete-game four-hitter to lead his Birches team to a 6-1 victory over Wind Gap. The senior from Pleasant Valley allowed an early run, but settled down and allowed just three hits the rest of the way. The win gives the Birches a 1-0 lead over Wind Gap in the NORCO Legion quarterfinals.
"Jumping out on Wind Gap is huge because they have a great baseball team," said Faust. "They have a lot of good hitters. They have a lot of experience from last year when I think they finished just short of the regionals. They have been the team to beat all year. So I am very happy to be up 1-0."
Baldino took the hill in the first inning and started out a little shaky. He walked the first batter he faced before plunking the second. He then gave up a RBI single to three-hole hitter Tom Young as the Birches quickly fell behind 1-0.
However, that would end up being Wind Gap's only run of the game. Baldino got the next batter to fly out to shallow center for the first out of the inning. He then induced an inning-ending double play to escape with only one run on the board.
Baldino found a groove and retired Wind Gap in order in the second, third, sixth and seventh innings. He did have runners on second and third with one down in the fourth, but got out of it thanks to consecutive groundballs back to the pitcher. He also loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth, but again found his way out of the jam with a groundout.
"I was just trying to hit my spots and get my curve ball over," said Baldino, who finished with four strikeouts and two walks. "I was excited to get the ball. I always wanted to pitch game one of the series. We had to go up 1-0 and I wanted to be the one to do it. Hopefully we can get another one (Wednesday) and have a day off before the next series."
Baldino received plenty of run support from centerfielder Derrik Walling and catcher Joe Wiesmeth. Walling (3-for-4) gave the Birches their first lead of the game when he doubled in two runs in the third. He was thrown out trying to make it to third, but later tripled to right and ended up a home run short of the cycle.
Wiesmeth was a perfect 3-for-3 with a walk and knocked in two runs of his own on a double in the fifth. The two runs gave the Birches a comfortable 5-1 lead heading into the later innings.
"(Wind Gap's Kirby Mutton) threw a first-pitch fastball over the middle of the plate," recalled Wiesmeth of his two-run double. "I just tried to hit it where it was pitched. Luckily I got two RBIs out of it."
Drew Borger (2-for-4) also picked up an RBI for the locals. He singled in Dan Hrbek after Hrbek doubled to lead off the game. Those four accounted for all nine of the Birches' hits.
The Birches will play at Wind Gap on Wednesday in game two. If necessary, game three will be back in Saylorsburg on Thursday. Due to the NORCO Legion's by-laws, the playoffs must be completed by July 14. That means the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals must be played in the next nine days.
Fortunately for the Birches, they have the arms to deal with such a schedule. Baldino, Tom Agosta, Xavier Hammond, Howie Stevens, John Guadagna and Aaron Cetnar are all capable of eating up innings. Faust believes that is enough to carry the load.
"We are very fortunate that we are strong in pitching this year," said Faust. "I feel that our staff is more than capable of carrying us through to the end."
Wind Gap 100 000 0 - 1 4 1
Birches 102 021 x - 6 9 1
Mutton, Russiero (5), Kresch (6) and Young; Baldino and Wiesmeth. W - Baldino, L - Mutton.