HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: Bobcats use familiar formula to claim District 6 title
ALTOONA — Fans of the Blairsville High School baseball team never will forget John Distefano’s two game-changing hits and two clutch plays involving balks in the District 6 Class AA playoffs.
Truth be told, Distefano’s acts will go down as two of the most significant plays in Blairsville baseball history.
Just four days removed from driving in the game-tying runs and then scoring the game-winner on a balk in a remarkable comeback win in the district semifinals, Distefano played hero again in the finals against defending champ Mount Union.
Following a balk that moved Cameron Livingston to second, and with d?j? vu creeping in, a confident Distefano ripped a base hit to score Livingston in the sixth, knocking in the eventual game-winning run and propelling top-seeded Blairsville to its first district championship with a 3-2 win over seventh-seeded Mount Union at Peoples Natural Gas Field on Wednesday night.
On Saturday, the Bobcats (17-1) erased a five-run deficit in the seventh inning to nip Central, 7-6, and advance to the district championship game for the first time since 2000, the year they lost to eventual state champion Huntingdon.
Blairsville dropped its first game of the year to Marion Center on April 4 but has since reeled off 17 straight wins. The Bobcats will make their second appearance in the state playoffs, taking on Shady Side Academy, the third-place team out of the WPIAL, in a first-round game Monday.
Mount Union came up short in its bid for an 18th district title under 40th-year coach Nick Imperioli. The Trojans (17-5) also advanced to the state playoffs.
“In the back of my mind I definitely thought, ‘There’s a balk. It’s meant to be,’” Distefano said. “There was a lot of pressure, but we’re a great team and we pulled through and did what we needed to do. We’re kind of like the last-inning kids, always coming through at the end of the game.”
“I almost had to pinch myself,” said seventh-year Blairsville coach Mark Zerfoss. “It was just d?j? vu all over again, and for Johnny to get up there again and just hit a rocket to the left side. I’m thinking he’s going to hit to the right-center gap or something like that. But for him to pull the ball on a rocket like that ... there was no doubt in my mind that we were sending him home.
“Whether he’s thrown out or not, we’re sending him, because in games like this, runs are hard to come by sometimes.”
Blairsville got off to a rocky start in the bottom of the sixth inning when the Thompson brothers, Bobby and Scott, were retired in succession by hard-throwing Mount Union right-hander Cole Boozel.
But with two outs, the Bobcats’ No. 5 hitter, Livingston, sparked a game-altering series of events by legging out an infield single toward the hole at second base.
The next batter, Distefano, signaled for a timeout an instant before Boozel began his motion toward home on his second pitch of the count.
However, only Boozel, not the home-plate umpire, recognized that Distefano had called timeout. As a result, Boozel stopped his motion and turned toward Livingston, only to get called for a balk.
A focused Distefano made Boozel pay dearly on the next pitch, driving a fastball into left field that scored Livingston with relative ease from second for a 3-2 lead.
“What was going through my mind was just my two at-bats before. They weren’t too good and I wanted to come through for the team again,” Distefano said. “When I made contact with the ball, I just knew he was going to score. It was a big hit and a big run.”
Blairsville pitcher Reed Ratkus induced back-to-back groundouts from the No. 1 and 2 hitters in Mount Union’s lineup, Klayton Heffner and Boomer Brown, to start the seventh. Ratkus then put the finishing touches on the win by baiting Boozel into popping out to center field to end the game.
“He’s a senior, and that’s why he settled down. It never even crossed my mind,” Zerfoss said of the prospect of replacing Ratkus in the seventh. “His pitch-count was phenomenal, and it’s weird with Reed because sometimes it takes him an inning or two to find his groove. I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t loosen up or it’s a psyche thing, but once he settles down, he’s tough to hit.”
The Trojans struck first and seemingly set the tone by plating a run in each of the first and second innings off Ratkus.
Heffner singled and then scored on Cory Kylor’s base hit later in the first to put Mount Union on the board.
The next inning, Brown hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to left field, scoring Hunter Atherton to put Mount Union ahead 2-0.
But Ratkus buckled down and got into a rhythm following the second inning, issuing just two walks and allowing no hits and no runs the rest of the way.
“He did a nice job,” Imperioli said of Ratkus. “We hit the ball but we weren’t effective. We couldn’t put it in the gaps, and a lot of balls we were hitting were ground balls. Offensively, after the first couple innings, we just seemed to be pretty weak.”
In the meantime, the resourceful Bobcats manufactured a pair of runs in the bottom of the third to tie the game, 2-2.
Nick Scribe walked, moved to second on an error and then advanced to third on a double play. Scribe then scored on a passed ball with Ratkus batting to make it 2-1.
Then, with Ratkus on second, Scott Thompson cracked a ground ball that Mount Union second baseman Brady Goodling attempted to snag in acrobatic fashion. Instead, the ball ricocheted off Goodling’s glove, allowing an aggressive Ratkus to score from second.
“I was just going hard. He gave me the wave and I just went,” Ratkus said.
“You have to. They were making some nice plays defensively so you have to send him there,” Zerfoss added.
Ratkus fired a five-hitter, striking out two and walking three.
“They did a good job. They made plays,” Imperioli said. “They did what we had to do, which was make plays behind their pitcher. Unfortunately, we didn’t make plays and they did.”
Bobby Thompson, one of Blairsville’s five seniors who finished 2-for-3, sounded off on the importance of winning a district title alongside his younger brother, Scott.
“It’s amazing,” Thompson said. “I didn’t think it could be comparable to last game, because that was just incredible, but being a D-6 champ is pretty awesome.”