Bombers advance to title game
ALLENTOWN — The first time that Lexi Merkel faced Northwestern this season, she struck out 12 batters in a Palmerton win.
Her next time out she whiffed 11, but Palmerton lost.
For her third time around, Merkel knew one thing about Northwestern hitters — she could get them to chase her high, hard pitches.
That was her game plan coming in and she didn’t deviate from that as she shut down the top-seeded team in the Colonial League playoffs, allowing just one hit in a 3-0 Palmerton win, sending the Blue Bombers (18-4) to their first-ever Colonial League championship game.
“They’ve struggled with that all year, so I knew that was the one that I had to use,” said Merkel after the win.
“I just wanted to keep them off balance and mix my pitches high and low and that worked tonight.”
It worked so well, that Merkel struck out 13 hitters, adding to a dominating streak of pitching that has seen her strike out 45 batters in her last three outings. The junior pitcher didn’t allow any walks and allowed only one hit. Of her 13 strikeouts, all were on swings and misses.
Offensively, Palmerton didn’t waste any time grabbing the lead. Northwestern pitcher Emily Akelaitis recorded the first out on one pitch, but Bomber senior Paige Shupp followed by taking an Akelaitis offering out to center field to give Palmerton a 1-0 lead.
“You always have that feeling when you hit the ball, you just kind of know,” said Shupp about her first-inning blast.
“It was a really big hit to start off the game. I just went in there thinking I was going to get a hit, you don’t think you’re going to get a home run, you just focus and do what you have to do.”
Palmerton had runners in scoring position in the third, fourth and fifth innings, but couldn’t push them across. The fifth inning was especially frustrating when they loaded the bases with no outs.
Shupp hit a ball to second with the infield in and Samantha Sisco made a strong throw home to get a force out. Kailah Altemose then hit a shot to third that Brynn Balliet fired home for the second out of the inning and catcher Anna Akelaitis fired a strike to first to turn it into a double-play and end the inning.
Northwestern had its only hit in the home fifth when Ashley Sisco roped a one-out line drive to right center. The next batter, Olivia Stofflet, popped up a bunt attempt and third baseman Amanda Lalik made a spectacular diving catch to prevent any additional baserunners.
In the sixth, Palmerton put runners on second and third with one out, and Megan Green came through with an RBI single to left. Allyssa Frantz followed with a groundball to second that plated the third run of the game for the Bombers.
“We had a lot of offense, we just couldn’t cash it in,” said coach Bob Hock. “We came out swinging the bats well and we’ve worked hard the last couple of days on our hitting.
“We hit great throughout the year and then got a little quiet, and that’s always a concern.”
NOT WHAT WE THOUGHT ... So many times, playoffs seem to follow the script with the top teams reaching the finals. Not so in the Colonial League this season. The top two seeds – Northwestern and Bangor – were both eliminated on Wednesday, leaving Palmerton (fourth seed) and Notre Dame (sixth seed) to battle for the title.
ELUSIVE LEAGUE TITLE ... Palmerton has been in the league semifinals two other times in the past three seasons and lost in one-run games both times — last year to Northern Lehigh (4-3) and in 2016 to Catasauqua (2-1). “It’s somewhat uncharted territory for us. We’ve been knocking on the door throughout my tenure here, we just can’t get past the semifinals. Luckily, we crossed that hump tonight, and we’ll show up with Lexi on the mound and be ready to do battle again.”
Palmerton 100 002 0 - 3 7 0
Northwestern 000 000 0 - 0 1 2
Merkel and Frantz; E. Akelaitis and A. Akelaitis. W - Merkel. L - E. Akelaitis. HR: Palmerton - Shupp (1st, none on).