Mt. Lebanon’s 7th-inning rally falls short in state finals loss to Father Judge

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Saturday, June 17, 2023 | 8:46 PM


UNIVERSITY PARK – The Mt. Lebanon baseball players left the state championship game with silver medals, but the Blue Devils’ coach insisted he’d always remembered this team as golden.

When they started the year with eight consecutive losses, nobody could’ve predicted then they’d reach the state finals. Yet their dream of winning the state title lasted until the final out Saturday night.

“They set the all-time gold standard for Mt. Lebanon baseball,” said coach Patt McCloskey after the two-time WPIAL champions lost to Philadelphia’s Father Judge, 4-1, in the PIAA Class 6A final at Penn State.

McCloskey told them how no other Mt. Lebanon team had won consecutive WPIAL titles, and that their resilience after an 0-8 start wouldn’t be forgotten. He was trying to ease their pain after a seventh-inning rally came up a hit or two short.

“I just wanted to let them know,” he said, “that as much as it hurts losing a game and losing a tight one like this … to let them remember where they stand in Mt. Lebanon baseball history.”

Mt. Lebanon (16-11) reached the state finals for only the second time, after winning in 1998.

The Blue Devils loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh but couldn’t crack Father Judge pitcher David Rodriguez, a junior committed to St. John’s. The hard-throwing right-hander pitched a complete game, struck out eight and escaped the bases-loaded jam with a game-ending flyout to center.

Rodriguez had allowed only four hits in the first six innings, and Father Judge played error-free defense behind him. But Mt. Lebanon’s bats found some life in the seventh when David Shields, Brock Stacy and Brett Hamel all singled.

Tanner Donati followed with a high line drive that Father Judge’s center fielder caught above his head for the final out.

“I went straight fastballs,” Rodriguez said of his approach with Donati. “I didn’t want to mess around, jeopardize a passed ball and get rowdy. … We call the outfield the ‘No fly zone.’ Nothing is getting by them.”

Mt. Lebanon had struggled for hits all game, but McCloskey said he thought momentum was swinging to his team’s side in the seventh.

“I really liked our chances,” he said. “As soon as Brett got that hit, I’m like, ‘We’ve got it.’ Tanner did his job. He squared the baseball up. It just didn’t fall in.”

Rodriguez, who has a fastball that sits around 90 mph, allowed one run on seven hits, with no walks and eight strikeouts. He reached the 105-pitch limit against Donati, so that would’ve been his final batter, one way or another.

“If we could’ve extended a few more at-bats, (we could’ve) gotten him out a little bit earlier, but that’s baseball,” McCloskey said. “It didn’t go that way. He was really humming.”

Mt. Lebanon’s starter Shields pitched well enough to win. The left-hander went 6⅓ innings and allowed two runs on six hits and two walks with eight strikeouts. Only one run was earned.

“When we found out who we were playing, I started doing some research,” Father Judge coach Mike Metzger said of Shields, a Miami (Fla.) commit. “I started watching video and said, ‘This kid can play.’ That kid is real good now. He’s only going to get better.”

Mt. Lebanon took a 1-0 lead in the third inning but saw its Philadelphia Catholic League opponent score twice each in the fifth and seventh innings. Father Judge’s last two runs were charged to Smith, who relieved Shields with one out in the seventh.

The state title was the first for Father Judge (25-2) and the seventh overall for a District 12 team.

An RBI single by Mt. Lebanon’s Matthew Delvaux broke the shutout in the third inning. Tyler Smith reached on a fielder’s choice, stole second and later scored on Delvaux’s single to left for a 1-0 lead.

The Blue Devils’ lead lasted into the fifth. Two Father Judge batters reached base on a walk and a fielding error, and a two-run double by Anthony Jakeman gave the Crusaders a 2-1 lead.

“They got the one big hit,” McCloskey said. “They’re in the state finals for a reason. Look at who they beat. They ran through three District 1 powerhouses. They’re good.”

Shields threw a no-hitter in the WPIAL finals, but any hopes of a repeat here in the state finals were dashed by Father Judge’s first batter, senior Brooks Henderson, who singled to center. Henderson had three hits, reached base four times and scored twice.

But Shields settled and struck out six in the first four innings. The left-hander stranded a runner at third in both the first and fourth innings before running into trouble in the fifth.

In the seventh against Smith, Father Judge used two singles, a walk and a wild pitch to score twice more and lead 4-1. Only one of Father Judge’s eight hits went for extra bases.

Mt. Lebanon had no extra-base hits.

“They were a good offense, and they did enough,” McCloskey said. “There are a couple of things I wish we could’ve done better, but that’s baseball and they’re high school kids. When you’re playing a team that good, you really have to play a full game.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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