Fast start fuels Plum baseball in 1st-round win vs. Mt. Lebanon

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018 | 11:24 PM


The Plum baseball team jumped to a three-run lead on Mt. Lebanon in the first inning of Tuesday's WPIAL 6A first-round game at North Allegheny.

While the Mustangs offense didn't score after that, ace Ryan Kircher and the defense made it stand in a 3-1 victory.

“Three (runs) was enough today,” Plum coach Carl Vollmer said. “Ryan is as good as it gets, (catcher) Tanner Froehlich did a tremendous job behind the plate and the defense was pretty solid. I give their pitchers credit. They settled in and threw a pretty good game. We had a couple of extra chances to score runs, but they made some nice defensive plays.”

Plum, in the WPIAL playoffs for the 12th straight season, improved to 16-4 overall and advanced to the quarterfinals for the sixth year in a row.

The last time the Mustangs didn't make it past the first round was in 2012, when current Chicago Cubs second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ led Mt. Lebanon to an 8-2 opening-round victory over Plum.

The current Mustangs ended the regular season with five consecutive victories, and its sixth straight triumph sets up a quarterfinal matchup with No. 4 Canon-McMillan, a 2-0 winner over No. 13 Norwin on Tuesday. The Mustangs and Big Macs will play Monday at a site and time to be determined.

“We came out here and battled and picked up a good win against a veteran Mt. Lebanon team,” Vollmer said.

The Blue Devils (9-12) featured 11 seniors. They finished in a three-way tie for second place with Upper St. Clair and Peters Township and defeated USC in the section finale to earn a trip to WPIALs.

“My hat's off to Plum, who made that early lead stand up,” Mt. Lebanon coach Patt McCloskey said. “They got us down early, and any time we started to come back, they immediately shifted the momentum. But I was very happy with the way we competed and how many balls we put in play against a very good pitcher.”

Plum had three hits and drew two walks in the first inning off Mt. Lebanon starter Mark Linkowski.

Markus Cestra and Dom Carlisano singled to start the game and came home on a one-out single from cleanup hitter Pete Zullo. Evan Sante and Jackson Rogers then drew walks to load the bases, and Kircher helped himself with a sacrifice fly to left that plated Zullo.

“This is a rush,” Zullo said. “You work all year for this, to come out and play good baseball (in the playoffs). That's what it's all about.”

Linkowski threw five innings and gave up only two more hits over his final four innings. Those came in the bottom of the third as Froehlich and Zullo singled to start the inning. Plum, though, couldn't add a run.

After Mt. Lebanon scored to close the gap in the top of the sixth, Plum sought insurance in the bottom of the inning, but it had a runner thrown out at the plate.

Kircher improved to 4-0. He threw 92 pitches and gave up seven hits and three walks, and he hit a batter. He picked off a runner at second in the second inning and another at first in the third.

Kircher got the leadoff batter in the sixth to ground back to him, but an infield single and two more that reached the outfield loaded the bases. Right fielder Cam Kennedy then rapped a single to left to get the Blue Devils on the board.

But just when Mt. Lebanon was threatening, the Plum defense shut the door. Kircher induced a Finn Dugan grounder to Cestra at second, who started a 4-6-3 double play.

Kircher then retired the side in the seventh.

“Ryan grinded through a day where it wasn't as easy as it is sometimes for him,” Vollmer said. “That shows a lot of heart and character. And he also had a really mature at-bat in the first inning to get us that extra run.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mlove_Trib.

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