Clutch pitching key for Franklin Regional in 1st-round win over Connellsville

Wednesday, May 15, 2024 | 10:42 PM

Connellsville had runners at first and second with one out in the top of the seventh inning, and Franklin Regional pitcher Blake Bertucci quickly fell behind in the count to Matt Firestone. Three balls and no strikes.

A touch-and-go, one-run lead in the playoffs rested squarely on Bertucci’s shoulders, but he stared down Firestone and the situation.

He gave a shrug, then saved the day.

“I had to show him my best stuff was better than his,” Bertucci said. “I threw him a fastball down the middle.”

Bertucci struck out Firestone, then managed to get a flyout to right to seal a 2-1 victory for the No. 6-seeded Panthers over No. 11 Connellsville in the WPIAL Class 5A first round Wednesday at Gateway.

“I wasn’t nervous,” said starting pitcher NJ Ramchandran, who was replaced by Bertucci in the sixth inning. “I felt comfortable with Blake out there. He has been in those situations before.”

Franklin Regional (13-7) advances to play No. 3 North Hills (12-4) in Monday’s quarterfinals.

Franklin Regional, Fox Chapel, Penn-Trafford and Plum tied for first in Section 1.

While a lot of teams win playoff games with their bats, the Panthers won this opener with strong arms.

They had only three hits — Bertucci was 2 for 3 — but did enough to score one more than the Falcons (11-10) in a matchup of teams that missed the postseason last year.

Ramchandran, in his first postseason start, went five innings and allowed one run on four hits while striking out four and walking three.

Bertucci gave up two hits and walked two in two innings and earned his second save.

“NJ came out and commanded the strike zone with all of his pitches,” Franklin Regional coach Bobby Saddler said. “He was able to keep Connellsville off balance. When they scored in the second inning, he didn’t lose confidence and kept his composure, which allowed him to get through the next three innings without allowing another run.

“We felt confident handing the ball off to Blake in the sixth because he’s been a competitor all year. He also was able to use his mix of pitches to keep them off balance and close out the game for us.”

The Panthers took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the third. A costly error on center fielder Chase Sankovich with two outs allowed Owen Sinclair, who walked, to race home for the first run.

Then, Bertucci delivered an RBI single to score Virginia commit Luke Williams and make it 2-1.

“We don’t mind low-scoring games because of how good our pitching is,” Bertucci said. “It keeps us in games.”

Connellsville took a 1-0 lead in the second on a run-scoring single from Sankovich, who later made a diving catch in center.

The Falcons, who had six hits, all singles, had runners at first and second in the fourth but, despite a base hit and an error, couldn’t score against Ramchandran, who had the other Panthers hit.

“NJ is a dog,” Bertucci said. “He locks it down.”

In the sixth, after a single, a steal and a walk, Bertucci kept Connellsville off the board, recording a strikeout and inducing a groundout to stamp out the threat.

“I started to hit my spots better,” Ramchandran said. “My curve wasn’t working early, so I was pitching to contact. I wanted to let the defense play. I wanted to go back out (in the sixth), but we knew Blake would hold it down.”

The Panthers’ bats remained quiet until the sixth when Bertucci smacked a double to right.

But an inning-ending double play foiled their chances at an insurance run.

Franklin Regional had one error, but it did not lead to a run.

“The defense stepped up throughout the game and made some very nice plays in crucial situations,” Saddler said. “It was a great team win for us today.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at

Tags: ,

More Baseball

Avonworth says disputed call in PIAA finals shifted momentum in 12-0 loss to Neumann-Goretti
Eden Christian falls to undefeated Faith Christian in PIAA Class A final
Indiana’s 1st appearance in PIAA baseball finals ends with walk-off loss to Holy Ghost Prep
PIAA Class A baseball championship preview: Eden Christian vs. Faith Christian
PIAA Class 3A baseball championship preview: Avonworth vs. Neumann-Goretti