No. 1 Mt. Lebanon breaks ‘curse’ with quarterfinal win over Seneca Valley
Monday, May 23, 2022 | 10:10 PM
A seventh-inning curveball glanced off Mt. Lebanon catcher Paul Connolly’s mitt and rolled away, causing a moment of panic since there was a runner on third and a one-run lead.
Coach Patt McCloskey immediately wondered if West Mifflin’s baseball field was cursed, at least for his Blue Devils, who were two outs from winning a WPIAL quarterfinal.
“We have never won here,” McCloskey said, “and our season has ended here four times in a row.”
Yet, this time, Connolly chased down the ball and made a timely flip to freshman pitcher David Shields, who applied the tag at the plate, a resilient effort that ultimately let No. 1 Mt. Lebanon escape with a 5-4 victory over No. 8 Seneca Valley in the WPIAL Class 6A playoffs Monday.
“It was good to get a win here and break the curse,” McCloskey said. “Now, I don’t believe in that stuff at all … but it would have been easy to fold as everything kind of went wrong there in a hurry.”
Mt. Lebanon (14-7) advanced to face No. 5 Central Catholic (12-9) in a semifinal at 2 p.m. Tuesday again at West Mifflin.
Shields pitched two scoreless innings in relief to earn the win. But the stress caused by that passed ball fit perfectly in a game where neither team was ever too comfortable. Just a half-inning earlier, Seneca Valley dropped a two-out fly ball that let Mt. Lebanon scored twice for a 5-4 lead.
In all, there were four lead changes.
“There were a lot of 50/50 plays,” Connolly said. “It could have gone one way or another. It was a rough win, but the ball dropped our way today.”
Seneca Valley (14-8) was trying to reach the WPIAL semifinals for the first time since winning the title in 2014. Raiders starter Nate Malak allowed six hits in six innings, but two late fielding errors by his defense proved costly.
“We’re not here today if certain plays aren’t made earlier in the year,” Seneca Valley coach Eric Semega said. “Now, when certain plays don’t go in your favor, it all equals out. It’s unfortunate it had to equal out today.”
Seneca Valley led 1-0 and 4-3, but Mt. Lebanon found a way to rally back both times. That resilience kind of sums up the Blue Devils’ year, said senior Jack Smith, who provided the day’s biggest hit with a three-run homer in the third.
Smith’s opposite-field shot sneaked inside the right-field foul pole to give Mt. Lebanon a 3-1 lead.
“Our season has been up and down, but we keep fighting,” said Smith, a Harvard recruit who started Monday on the mound. “We fight ‘til the end, and that’s what we did today.”
Mt. Lebanon is chasing its first WPIAL title since 2006.
Smith allowed four runs on six hits in 4⅓ innings, striking out seven and walking two. Evan Rossi earned the final two outs in the fifth, and then gave way to Shields, who pitched the sixth and seventh.
Seneca Valley had a 4-3 lead before a two-out miscue in the sixth gave Mt. Lebanon new life.
A fly ball hit by Shields bounced off right fielder Owen Yarussi’s glove as he and center fielder Brock White converged. Mt. Lebanon’s Tyler Smith and Derrick Shields scored for a 5-4 lead.
The outfield error came one batter after an infield error extended the inning.
“You have two kids who are usually just so aggressive to the ball,” Semega said. “Our right fielder didn’t see it into the glove. That has not happened all year. We’ve never done that. It would be different if they didn’t want to make a play. They were trying to make a play.”
Seneca Valley took a 1-0 lead in the third inning when White doubled and scored.
The Raiders added three more runs in the fifth with a small-ball approach. The Raiders loaded the bases with a single and two bunts. A.J. Capizzi drove in one run with a sacrifice fly, and Malak followed with a two-run single to lead 4-3. Mt. Lebanon escaped additional damage in the fifth with an inning-ending double play.
Mt. Lebanon scored three runs in the third on Smith’s homer and added two in the sixth on the outfield error.
Seneca Valley had hope in the seventh with one out and runners on first and third. When the ball got away from Connolly, Semega sent runner Tyler Mack from third, but Mack didn’t get a clean break and Connolly’s throw beat him to the plate.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a good decision on my part to send him,” Semega said. “Compounded with what happened the inning before, it wasn’t good.”
David Shields sealed the win with a game-ending strikeout. He struck out three of the seven batters he faced, but his play at the plate will be most remembered.
“It never goes how you want it to go,” Shields said. “In the end, it was an out, and that’s what we needed most. But I almost had a heart attack halfway through the play.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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