St. Francis celebrates as Mark Phillips (6) scores to defeat Whitmer in a Division I district semfinal.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
In a game that Whitmer looked destined to win, one of the smallest players on the field came up with the biggest hit of his career — and of the season — for the fourth-ranked St. Francis de Sales baseball team.
Eric Zmuda, the Knights’ 5-foot-7 energizer-bunny of a shortstop, slammed a two-run walk-off double to right field on Friday to lift St. Francis to a 6-5 victory over Whitmer in a Division I district semifinal at Mercy Field.
The hit scored pinch-runner Mark Phillips and capped a 3-for-5 game at the plate for Zmuda, who had earlier produced an RBI single, and an RBI triple, while St. Francis (26-1) was busy chipping away at a four-run deficit.
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It came on a second-chance opportunity for Zmuda, who was robbed of a potential game-tying single in his previous at-bat in the fifth inning. His sharp liner toward center field with runners at first and third (and Whitmer up 5-4) was speared by a diving Panthers second baseman, Anthony Okdie, whose highlight-reel catch ended that inning.
Knights catcher Michael Wagner, who came on in relief as his team’s last of five pitchers, got the victory, his first of the season. The win earned St. Francis a noon matchup with Clay (14-12) today in the district championship at Mercy Field.
“I knew when we started that inning that Andy Okuley was going to get on, so I saw it coming,” Zmuda said of the winning rally. “This reminded me of a game we had in Florida that ended the same way. It wasn’t our first time doing this, and I was happy to get a chance.”
St. Francis’ game-winning rally started when Whitmer starter Blake Melchert hit the Knights’ Okuley with a pitch to begin the bottom of the seventh.
St. Francis got a second runner aboard when Melchert threw wildly to first base on Nick Lankford’s sacrifice bunt attempt.
Wagner followed with an infield single to load the bases and — after Joey White popped out to Panther catcher Jack Linch — Zmuda worked his heroics at the plate against Whitmer reliever Luke Hickey.
“About 6-foot-12,” said Knights coach Tim Gerken when asked how tall Zmuda is. “He’s got the heart of a lion. He and [Clay’s Jordan] Grosjean are the best players in the area. That’s not a knock on anyone. They are both just gamers.”
Whitmer (14-11) had jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning, using three hits plus a walk and a hit batsman to pounce on Knights starter Josh Williams.
Jacob Czop drove home Kyle Craig for the first run on a single to center, and, after Rex Rutherford’s infield single loaded the bases, Tylor Schneider cleared them with a three-run double to left field.
“Four to nothing is not the way you want to start, but we know that, 1 through 9 [in batting lineup], we’re going to battle,” Zmuda said. “We’ve won all these games, but we know we still haven’t done anything.
“You have to play seven innings strong. We definitely believe in ourselves, and we know we haven’t yet played up to our potential in this tournament. We know we can play better.”
St. Francis chipped away at the lead, scoring two runs in the second inning and another run in the fourth.
In the second, Lankford and Wagner hit back-to-back one-out singles, and Zmuda and Cody Lewis later added consecutive RBI singles with two outs to get the Knights within 4-2.
In the fourth came what might have otherwise become the game’s pivotal play, an umpire’s call that derailed what looked to be a promising St. Francis rally. White led off the inning by reaching first when catcher Linch dropped a third strike.
Zmuda followed with an RBI triple to the gap in right-center, and Melchert then hit Lewis with a pitch to put runners at first and third with no outs.
Matt Zmuda, Eric’s twin brother, then grounded a ball to Whitmer third baseman Rutherford, who retired Lewis on a force at second while Eric Zmuda went home.
The umpiring crew ruled base-runner interference on Lewis, which made Matt Zmuda out at first for a double play, and sent Eric Zmuda back to third base because of the dead-ball situation.
Melchert struck out Miccoy Drzewiecki for the third out, limiting the Knight scoring to the lone run to preserve Whitmer’s 4-3 lead.
“You just have to keep playing,” Gerken said. “That old cliché about having to play seven innings, well, these guys believe it. They’re a great baseball group.”
The Panthers added a run in the fifth inning, when Okdie reached on a fielder’s-choice grounder, and later scored on Czop’s two-out single to center. Linch was thrown out at home by Knights center fielder White for the third out, keeping the score at 5-3.
St. Francis got back within a run in its half of the fifth when Max Lyon doubled to left field and scored on Lankford’s one-out single to left.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” Whitmer coach Gary O’Connor said. “We thought we played pretty well. We got out of a couple situations, and we got on them early. Our problem was we didn’t keep going after them. I felt, as a team, we played not to lose rather than keep going after them. But, I’m proud of our kids. They played hard. Zmuda is a special player.”