WESTOVER – Portage Area came a long way during the 2023 high school baseball season, almost making it to the District 6 Class 1A championship game and a spot in the PIAA playoffs after a 2-7 start.
The Mustangs are left trying to weigh the massive achievement of turning around the campaign with the anguish of ending the year on a game that they felt, with a break here or there, they very probably could have won.
Mustang sophomore right-hander Jake McCoy struck out 14 and teammate Isaac Jubina went 3-for-4 with a triple.
However, it was home-standing Harmony – the No. 1 seed – that rose to the occasion for two runs in the bottom of the sixth to break a scoreless tie, then shut the door on the Mustangs with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh me to pull out a 2-1 victory in the district semifinals on Friday afternoon.
“We had a lot of fun this season. We played our hardest. Jake threw a great game. At the end of the day, we didn’t get runs,” Jubina, the Mustangs’ senior third baseman, said. “At the end, we had a chance. We just didn’t get it.”
Jubina was on first base when imposing 6-foot-3 Owls reliever Jack Bracken managed to get Billy Willinsky swinging for the final out.
Earlier, Jubina was stranded on third after a wild-hop leadoff triple in the fourth inning and was left on second base in the sixth.
Portage stranded 10 baserunners. Six of the nine the Mustangs left aboard over their final five at-bats were in scoring position.
“The opportunities were there,” Portage coach Larry McCabe said. “It’s just a matter of somebody is going to pull through or somebody isn’t.”
McCabe’s team finished 11-10.
The Owls, already assured a PIAA tournament berth thanks to their win on Friday, will play Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Central Cambria High School in the District 6-1A title game.
No one could have predicted the Mustangs would wind up here at the beginning of the month, though.
Portage was 5-7 after Penn Cambria handed the Mustangs their fifth mercy-rule loss – 18-1 – on May 6.
Portage started the year with three straight losses and won two of its first nine.
“We won six in a row until today,” McCabe said.
“I told them, ‘That’s a lot of credit to you guys. You hate to tell them that in a loss, but what these players accomplished – they didn’t put their head down – they did what they had to do.”
“We just figured out how to play together,” McCoy said. “There’s a little bit of heartbreak (right now). Next year, we have to come back and do better.”
The outcome dampened a masterful performance from McCoy on the mound. His strikeout total was a career high, he didn’t walk a batter and he had a two-hitter going with one out in the bottom of the sixth before Cohlt Fry’s third hit of the afternoon gave Harmony life.
Anthony Maseto hit a tremendous popup on the right side of the infield. The high sky and cloudless early-afternoon conditions made anything in the air to that area an adventure – earlier, McCoy singled on one. None of the Mustang infielders could pick up the ball, which dropped on the grass about 20 feet up the first-base line.
Bracken, 0-for-2 with two strikeouts against McCoy to that point, then grounded one past shortstop Luke Scarton to drive in Fry with the go-ahead run. Bracken later crossed with what turned out to be the winning run on Luke Tarnow’s double.
“I’ve got to hand it to (McCoy). He really did good. He can really hit his spots and is a good pitcher,” Bracken said.
“It (having been in similar situations in making the state playoffs in basketball) really helped (us) with the pressure, just being in the same situations. I wasn’t as nervous as I normally am.”
Bracken finished things off after Maseto, who struck out nine, hit the pitch limit. Portage almost came back and pulled it out when Justin Morgan led off the seventh with a pinch-hit single, Easton Slanoc singled and Mason Kargo walked. Scarton put the Mustangs on the board with a sacrifice fly to center.
Then Jubina singled off the pitcher to load the bases again before Bracken recorded the last out.
“They’re a good team. You can’t take away from them,” McCoy said. “We just have to build off this.”
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