Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and Video by Larry Bennet
It was the bottom of the sixth inning. With the bases loaded and one out, it was deja vu time for the Westlake baseball team.
The Demons, down 3-1, had been here before. Even the new faces in the lineup got into the act.
A two-run double by Justin Runevitch brought home the tying and go-ahead runs as Westlake rallied for a 5-3 win over visiting Olmsted Falls in the Southwestern Conference opener for both teams. It was the season opener as well for the Demons, who were able to give new head coach Brendan Zepp his first career win.
In their run to the state championship game last season, the Demons were famous for their late-inning heroics during the tournament. Tuesday’s rally provided Westlake fans with more of the same.
“It certainly felt a lot like last year,” admitted Zepp after the game. “These guys stepped up again.
“This time, it was somebody else who wasn’t even on this team last year. Justin was a junior varsity player last year, but today he came up in a big situation and got us a big hit.
“I think last year’s run taught the kids to never give up and that they’re never out of a game. The leaders from last year kept their heads up. In the dugout, you could tell everybody was still in the game mentally, just waiting for things to happen,” he added.
Olmsted Falls had taken its lead with a 2-run fifth inning. Junior Adam Asadorian scored on a passed ball and senior Kenny Hanna crossed the plate on an infield error. Westlake stranded a pair of runners in the bottom of the frame, but reliver Tom Keany held off the Bulldogs in the top of the sixth to keep it a 2-run game.
In the bottom of the sixth, first baseman Jamie Lackner led off with a single to center. Catcher Kent Axcell hit a pop fly to short left that fell for single, then Mac Bilski reached on a bunt when the Bulldogs were late covering the bag at first.
With the bases loaded, the Demons got on the board when Keany flew out to center to plate Lackner. Falls starter Zach Yako then walked Dillon Crocker to reload the bases, prompting Bulldogs head coach Dan Largent to go to his bullpen.
Centerfielder Anthony Savarino came in to pitch and went 2-1 on Runevitch. His fourth offering was roped into right center and hit the wall on one bounce, scoring Axcell and Bilski with the tying and go-ahead runs.
An infield error allowed third baseman Andrew Kettel to bring home Keany to complete the rally and give Westlake it’s 5-3 lead. Keany allowed a leadoff single in the top of the seventh, but struck out the next three Bulldogs to pick up the win.
“That’s what I was hoping would happen, and it showed,” Zepp said. “We put ourselves in a hole giving up those runs early. But Bilski got that bunt down and put some pressure on their defense. Before that, we really weren’t putting any pressure on them. We were hitting fly balls, striking out or popping out.
“Once we started making them make plays, good things started to happen,” he added.
Overall, it was a sloppy game with both teams making five errors. Keany and starter Danny Strodtbeck held the Falls offense in check, allowing just three hits on the day.
“If you give a team extra outs - it doesn’t matter who it is - you get into trouble,” said Largent, whose team fell to 1-2 on the season.
“One of our assistants said it doesn’t matter what level you’re playing at, from little kids’ ball up to college and the pros. You give a team extra outs and you’re going to pay. That’s baseball,” Largent said. “It happens all the time. We handed them a couple outs in the sixth and a couple extra chances at the plate, and the next thing you know they’re up two runs.
“Right now, I’m looking to see who is going to step up and make our best nine guys. We have a couple of guys in position battles, and it’s hard to tell early on because in the gym everybody looks good. We haven’t found the right mix yet, but once we do I think we’re going to be OK.
“We need a lot of work offensively, but defensively today was a bit out of character for us. We only had one error all of last week. But we have a lot of work to do on offense. We need to continue to improve there,” he added.
Zepp said he also had questions going into Tuesday’s game.
“I wanted to see how our outfielders stepped up,” Zepp said. “We’ve got our main core guys back, but I wanted to see how the new guys handled things.
“They did a nice job. I was pretty pleased how they hit the cutoffs and things like that, how they were prepared for the game. Overall, I knew my older guys would be ready, and I knew Danny would pitch well. He started the state championship game for us, and he pitched well today.
“I was a little concerned because he got his pitch count up a little higher than I wanted, but then Tom came in and really shut the door. He was a pleasant surpise for us today,” he added.
On a personal note, Zepp acknowledged his first win as head coach was a big moment.
“It’s exciting. I’ve always wanted to be a head coach, so to get that first win and do it in this fashion makes it a little more fun. It was a little nerve-racking at first, but it’s fun to get the first one under our belts.
“We got our first win and our first conference win. Now we can move on and turn the page a little bit,” he added.
In other SWC openers, Amherst defeated North Olmsted 9-4; Berea handled Midpark 5-1; and Brecksville defeated Avon Lake 9-7.