Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
In 2011, the Lakewood baseball team won just four games. And with underclassmen dominating the lineup this season, the outlook for 2012 might have seemed bleak at first.
Don’t look now, but after 26 games the young Rangers are playing for a spot in the Division I district tournament.
Lakewood, up 5-1 after four innings, made some key defensive plays and scored an insurance run in the sixth inning for a 6-4 win over North Olmsted in a sectional semifinal. Thursday afternoon, the Rangers will take on third seed Westlake for a sectional title and a shot at next week’s district tournament.
“These games are important for us because we’re learning how to win,” said Lakewood head coach Mike Ribar, whose team raised its record to 15-11 and assured itself of a winning season.
“That’s where we were lacking, but now we’re starting to realize the things we need to do to win,” Ribar said. “We had a couple of games this year where things went wrong late in the game. Against Garfield Heights, we had a 5-0 lead for the conference championship, and we didn’t get it done. They came back and beat us 6-5.
“But our guys have started to learn from that. Today, they stayed in it and battled. North Olmsted and us are very similar squads, so it was a good win for us. We just wanted to give ourselves a chance,” he added.
The Ranger defense and junior starting pitcher Brian Hrdlicka (5-2) had held the visitors to just one run in the first four innings as North Olmsted stranded three runners in scoring position. In the meantime, an opportunistic offense had scratched out five runs, two of which came courtesy of a pair of Eagle errors.
North Olmsted jumped right back into the game in the top of the fifth, however, with three runs to make it close at 5-4. Eagles starter Zach Smith set the Rangers down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the frame to keep it that way heading into the sixth.
Ribar went to senior reliever Andre Cartagena, who promptly gave up a single up the middle to Eagles centerfielder Kevin Sawchic. A walk to junior right fielder Brett House and a passed ball had runners at second and third, but a missed suicide squeeze play threw the first wrench into a potential rally.
The next big play that kept North Olmsted off the board was turned in by first baseman Chris Goodwin. Eagle first baseman Jon Nola git a sharp grounder to the left side of the infield, and the throw to first was low.
Goodwin stretched and made the scoop catch for the second out, again preventing an Eagle run from scoring. After another walk, Cartagena used his curve ball to get a strikeout and end the threat.
“I thought that was a key play in the game,” Ribar said of Goodwin’s play at first. “Goodwin scooping the ball on that play was huge. If that thing skips and goes up the line, we’re down a run and in a hole. Instead, we get the out and they don’t score.
“I thought Cartagena stood in there. He got himself into some trouble, but he battled and got himself out of it. But everybody’s doing their jobs, and that’s what we keep talking about,” he added.
Lakewood scored its insurance run in the bottom of the sixth when junior Eric Roder led off with a single, went to second on Marquise Tyus’ sacrifice bunt and scored on a rare double play.
With the bases loaded, senior designated hitter Adam Morris lined out to second for the second out. With the runners going on contact, Roder managed to cross the plate before North Olmsted could get the final out on a play at third.
In the top of the seventh, Roder took the mound and closed it out, surviving a pair of two-out walks.
“We had opportunities early in the game, but we couldn’t seem to get a hit,” said Eagles head coach Tim Murphy. “We took a couple of called third strikes with runners in scoring position, and that’s a killer.
“Then we didn’t get the squeeze down, and that would have tied the game. That changes the dynamics of the game too. Zack (3-3) pitched a good game. He scrapped and battled out there the whole game. We didn’t make a defensive play a couple of times when we really needed it.
“We had some younger players step up and do some things offensively today, so it’s not all bad. It’s a tough way to end it, though,” he added.
North Olmsted, now 12-14, will close out the season Friday at Victory Park Ohio in North Ridgeville when it hosts Amherst in a Southwestern Conference finale.
Lakewood will travel to Westlake on Thursday in a game that will start at 4:30 p.m. The winner will advance to a district semifinal game against the winner of the Elyria-Midview sectional final Tuesday, May 15 at the Lorain Pipe Yard. That game is scheduled for 5 p.m.
In Thursday’s other sectional finals, Avon will host Olmsted Falls and Amherst will host St. Edward. The winners of those two games will travel to the Pipe Yard and play Tuesday at 2 p.m. The district championship game is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16 in Lorain.