Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
It has been said that pitching is the number one component to winning a championship in baseball.
If that is indeed the case, the Westlake Demons are feeling pretty good about their chances this week.
The Demons have advanced to this week’s Division I regional semifinals on the strength of stellar back-to-back pitching performances last week. On Wednesday, Ben Neumann went the distance and out-pitched Kentucky recruit Eric Lauer in a 4-2 win over Midview at The Pipe Yard in Lorain.
Then on Thursday, his cousin Kevin threw a four-pitch shutout as the Demons blanked top-seeded Avon, 1-0, in the Lorain district title game. Neumann not only shutout the potent Eagles offense, he also drove in the only run of the game on a two-out single to left in the top of the first inning.
That was just enough to get past Avon starter Anders Mahon, who scattered seven hits but got no offensive support. Neumann and the Demons, who held off a seventh inning Eagle rally, made their lone run stand.
The Demons now advance to Thursday’s regional semifinal contest against St. Ignatius, the winner of the Strongsville district. The game will be played at Case Western Reserve University at 5 p.m., with the winner moving on to the Friday championship game at 5 p.m.
St. Ignatius advanced with a narrow 3-2 win over North Royalton last Thursday. In the other regional semifinal this Thursday at Bowling Green State University, Ashland will take on Oregon Clay at 5 p.m.
Winning the district championship, the program’s first since 1999, also delayed the impending retirement of veteran head coach Jeff Short. Last Thursday, Short talked about how his team answered the challenge against two formidable pitchers.
“We go from Lauer yesterday to Mahon today,” said Short after his team moved to 21-6 on the season. “That’s not being really nice to us. You’ve got two guys who are considered two of the better pitchers in the area.
“We found a way to score that run early, and I think that was so important to give us some confidence,” Short said. “We got to Lauer early yesterday, and that allowed us to say ‘hey, we can hit him. We can make something happen.’
“This first inning today was the same thing. We didn’t hit the ball well, but we gloved it well and Kevin pitched his tail off. But we got that first run in the first inning, and it was ‘here we go again. We’re going to be OK.’
“I thought we’d get more than one run, but we’ll take it,” he added.
Mahon, who struck out seven and walked just one, started the game off strong in his first start since a 1-0 loss at Bay two weeks prior. He got in infield pop out and a strikeout, but a passed ball on a strikeout of outfielder Danny Strodtbeck kept the inning alive.
First baseman Jaime Lackner took a 1-2 offering from Mahon and singled to put runners at the corners. Up to the plate stepped Neumann, who sent an 0-1 pitch to left field to drive in Strodtbeck with the only run of the game.
Neumann, who won just his second game of the season, worked his way out of a jam in the bottom of the inning. Avon used one-out singles from Brad Dill and Joel Yearly to start the rally, with Ryan Rogers drawing a walk to load the bases. Neumann countered with a strikeout of Austin Bevins and forced Greg Harrison to hit into an infield out to end the threat.
Avon managed just three more base runners in the next five innings, with Neumann striking out the side in the bottom of the fourth. But the Eagles would not go quietly in the bottom of the seventh.
Neumann got a pair of infield outs to start the inning, but an error allowed Avon outfielder Joe Mementowski to reach safely. Second baseman Donny Kelly worked the count full before lacing a single to left, putting runners at the corners.
But Neumann put out the fire and sent the Demons to the regional tourney with a three-pitch strikeout of Dill, who took the third strike looking.
“I’m a confident guy and I know we have a good team,” said Neumann, who struck out eight and walked two to move to 2-4 on the season. “We lost to them early in the season, and we just wanted to get some revenge on them here.
“This gives me and my team a lot of confidence,” said Neumann about getting past his early-season struggles on the mound. “It feels great to come out here and pitch a game like this. At the end, my mind was in a million places. But I was able to focus and pound the strike zone.”
Getting the game-winning hit made the day all the more special for the Demon righty.
“I knew it was a big at bat.” Neumann admitted. “We had runners in scoring position. I just wanted to put the ball in play and do something positive for our team.”
“He was phenomenal last spring,” Short said. “He was our number one, and there was a reason for that. This year he was hurt at the beginning of the season and couldn’t throw much right away.
“Once the season got going he was healthy, but he just didn’t pitch well,” Short said. “He’s had eight appearances heading into today. He started out 1-4. But in his last four outings, he’s had one start and three relief appearances and he’s been lights out.
“After today’s performance, you’ve got to take your hat off to him. With him and Ben, it’s like having two number ones all over again, and that’s pretty nice,” he added.
As big of a win as it was for Westlake, it was just as tough a loss for Avon, which dropped to 24-4.
“We obviously don’t like losing the way we did,” DeSmit said addressing his team in right field.
“We had some opportunities we didn’t take advantage of,” DeSmit said. “We left the bases loaded in the first. I think we had two guys on in the second. They had very few guys on all day, but they took advantage of the one or two times they did and got a run across.
“Last year against Holy Name we made a few errors early and got ourselves in a hole. Up until this game, we had done a nice job of reversing that and making sure we were the team that got on top first. We just didn’t do that today,” he added.
Despite the loss, DeSmit had praise for his senior starter, who fell to 6-2. Both of his losses this season were 1-0 games, the other coming against Bay during the regular season.
“Anders pitched a heck of a game,” said Avon head coach Frank DeSmit. “He hasn’t touched a ball, literally, since yesterday. That was the first time he threw more than two or three pitches since two weeks ago against Bay.
“He’s had some tendonitis, so it was a heck of a performance on his part to come out and gut it out and pitch the way he did. We just didn’t get any runs across. Their pitcher obviously did a great job of keeping us off balance,” he added.
The Demons, on the other hand, not only get to move on in the tournament, they also gets to let their head coach hang around awhile longer.
“This means everything because it’s Coach Short’s last year,” Neumann said. “We had to do it for him.”