TAMAQUA – After Saturday's 2-1 loss to Hazleton in the opening game of the District 18 9-10 Little League best-of-three championship series, Jim Thorpe Blue was faced with adversity for the first time in this year's Tournament.
Prior to Saturday, Jim Thorpe was never tested. They rolled through South tournament play undefeated having averaged over 13 runs per game with an average margin of victory of over nine runs.
So, with Hazleton taking them out of their comfort zone, the question going into Sunday's second contest was how Jim Thorpe would respond?
With some early runs and a drama-filled sixth inning, Jim Thorpe Blue answered with a 6-5 victory that forces a third and deciding game on Tuesday night in Tamaqua (6 p.m.) for the 9-10 year old championship.
Jim Thorpe survived by dealing with failure, rebounding from adversity and never giving up – some of the most important life lessons that kids can learn through youth baseball.
"Playing this team (Hazleton) is nothing new for us. We've been battling this same group of kids since we were seven and eight years old. We know they're a great team," stated Jim Thorpe Blue head coach Ryan Hurley. "We had so much success leading up to this series, that when the kids fell behind early on Saturday (trailing 2-0 after the first inning), they started to get down on themselves.
"We told the kids that if we wanted to win today, we had to forget about what happened yesterday. Today, the kids battled back. We got the early lead, kept it until the sixth, gave it away, and then took it right back with a walk-off single. It was an exciting game and I'm so proud of this team."
Hazleton scored in the first inning when Elian Baez laced an infield single, stole second, advanced to third on a sacrifice fly and then came home on a throwing error (the only Jim Thorpe error on the afternoon).
Unlike Saturday, Jim Thorpe had no problem answering back. In the bottom of the second, Mike Day scored on fielder's choice by Adam Lauer and a Hazleton throwing error allowed Ian Hubbard to come around for a 2-1 lead. Lauer then came home on an RBI single from Carlos Magobet for a 3-1 advantage.
Following Dewin Concepcion's two-out triple in the first inning, Jim Thorpe starting pitcher Adam Lauer retired 13 of the next 14 batters he faced (with the only base runner coming when Jason Herron was hit by a pitch to lead off the fifth inning).
Jim Thorpe increased its lead to 5-1 when Lauer hit an RBI single to score Johnny Malarkey in the fourth frame and Jared Marykwas hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth to plate Caiden Hurley.
Showing no quit, Hazleton mounted a final rally in the top of the sixth frame, which paved the way for some late-game drama. Lead-off hitter Elian Baez was hit by a pitch, which was followed by singles from Chris Genao and Dewin Concepcion to load the bases with one out. Oliver Martinez then grounded back to the pitcher (Jared Joyce) who threw home for the second out, and in what appeared to be a textbook game-ending double play, Jim Thorpe catcher Ian Hubbard fired to third, but a takeout slide jarred the ball loose from third baseman Jared Marykwas.
With the bases still loaded and two outs, Jason Herron singled to center to score Genao and Concepcion to make it 5-3. Brady Herness cut the lead to 5-4 with an RBI single to right, and Michael Pujols tied the game up on a single to left. However, on Pujols' single, Hazleton's third base coach reached out to stop Harness from attempting to score. By rule, if a coach contacts a base runner during live play, the runner is ruled out, and so ended the top of the sixth inning tied at 5-5.
"They had the top of the order up in the sixth and those kids can really hit the ball, so we knew it was going to be a challenge," stated Hurley. "Our starting pitcher (Lauer) is a leftie so I think he had them a little off-balance, but he ran out of pitches at the end and we had to bring in a righty (Jared Joyce), which they fared much better against."
Five of Hazleton's seven hits came in the sixth inning.
However, despite blowing a four-run lead, Jim Thorpe never got down and never gave up.
Following a Gavin Fikentscher single and a Jared Joyce walk, Caiden Hurley stepped to the plate with two runners on and two outs. Hurley then delivered the game's biggest hit by lacing a single to right field, which allowed Fikentscher (Jim Thorpe's fastest runner) to score from second.
For Jim Thorpe Blue, Hurley and Malarkey each had two hits apiece, while Lauer added two RBI.
"It was crazy at the end there, that's for sure," added Hurley. "My kid (Caiden) was up to bat and luckily he kept his composure at the plate. He stayed with the pitch and took it to right field and won the game.
"This has been a great series so far with two one-run games. We have our ace (Hurley) available to pitch and I think they'll be throwing their ace as well, so Tuesday should be one heckuva baseball game."
Hazleton 100 004 - 5 7 4
JT Blue 030 111 - 6 9 1
Burkhardt, Baez (2), Genao (6) and Pujols, Burkhardt (2); Lauer, Joyce (6) and Hubbard. W - Joyce. L - Baez.
JT Blue 001 000 - 1 5 3
Hazleton 200 000 - 2 6 0
Hurley, Fikenstscher (4) and Hubbard; Concepcion, Genao (6) and Burkhardt. W - Concepcion. L - Hurley. S - Genao.