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Bombers top NL in eight innings

The Palmerton softball team has overpowered the opposition time-and-time again this season.

Behind flame-throwing pitcher Carly Gaffney and a high-octane offense, the Blue Bombers have piled up 13 mercy-rule victories.

But Saturday in a 2-1 Colonial League quarterfinal round playoff victory over rival Northern Lehigh, Palmerton showed that it’s capable of winning in a different manner.

Instead of overwhelming the Bulldogs behind an offense that produced double-digit runs in 15 games this season, the Bombers relied on some strengths that could be easily overlooked when you’ve been as dominate as they have been.

“Palmerton is one of the best teams anywhere around,” said Northern Lehigh head coach Dan Caruso. “They have a great pitcher and an outstanding offense. But our girls hung right with them and gave them everything they could handle.

“In the end, the difference was the little things they did … the big defensive plays, the two-strike hits, the sacrifice bunt when they needed it. They are the things that great teams do to win close games. I thought we did a lot of really good things too, but they just did a few more.”

Those “little things” that Caruso referenced were never more crucial than in the eighth inning.

With the scored tied 1-1, the Bulldogs appeared poised to take the lead. But Palmerton’s defense rose to the occasion with two brilliant plays to keep the game knotted.

Bulldog leadoff batter Haylie Fenstermaker opened the inning with an opposite-field single and stole second. Marisa Maehrer then bunted, but Bomber third baseman Megan Matsko raced in and made a diving headfirst catch of the ball just before it hit the ground for the inning’s first out. Following a Gaffney strikeout and an intentional walk to Kaitlyn Stock, Bomber left fielder Tessa Sander ended the threat with a running catch of a deep drive by Kaylee Snyder that looked like it could clear the bases.

“Two outstanding plays,” said Palmerton head coach Bob Hock. “The old adage is that defense wins championship, and although we haven’t won anything yet, those defensive plays kept our chances to win one alive.

“If Megan doesn’t make that play on the bunt, there’s a good chance that turns out to be a hit, and at the very least it gets the runner to third. Then Tessa runs down that ball in left that looked like it could be extra bases. It could have easily been a two- or three-run inning without those plays.”

The Blue Bombers ended the game in the bottom of the eighth. Hailey Barry got things started when she punched a low-and-away 0-2 pitch to right for a single. Matsko then laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Barry into scoring position. Following an intentional walk to Gaffney, Cadee Munjone singled up the middle to plate Barry with the winning run.

“Hailey had a huge at-bat to get the inning started,” said Hock. “She got down in the count, but stayed with a tough pitch and lined it to the opposite field. Megan then got the bunt down to set the stage for Cadee, and she delivered.

“Give (Northern Lehigh pitcher Addision) Smith credit. She’s had our number a couple times in the last week. But even though we didn’t have our typical offensive performance today, we found a way to win and that’s what counts.”

UP NEXT ... With the win, Palmerton (19-2) advances to Tuesday’s semifinals where it will face Palisades at Pates Park at 4:30 p.m. Northern Lehigh (12-9) is off until the start of the District 11 playoffs the week of May 20.

OFFENSIVE STARS ... Despite failing to put up its normal big-run total, the Bombers had plenty of base runners as they banged out 10 hits and got a pair of free passes. Sydney Frantz, Barry and Sander all had two hits with Frantz also picking up an RBI and Sander scoring a run. For Northern Lehigh, Maehrer had a single, drew two walks, and scored a run.

MORE MEGAN ... Matsko’s diving catch in the eighth wasn’t her only run-saving defensive play in the game. In the sixth, with Bulldog runners on second and third and none out, Matsko fielded a perfectly executed bunt by Peyton Hoffman and faked a throw to first base before twirling around and catching the NL baserunner straying too far off third and tagging her out. Stock followed with a ground rule double that scored the lone NL run, but without Matsko’s play, two runs would have scored on the hit.

PITCHERS ... Gaffney allowed just three hits and struck out 10. Smith, who silenced Palmerton’s bats in handing it just its second loss of the season four days earlier, was excellent again as she fanned two and limited hard-hit balls.

No. Lehigh 000 001 00 - 1 3 1

Palmerton 000 010 01 - 2 10 2

A. Smith and Gad; Gaffney and Delgado. W - Gaffney. L - A. Smith.