A berth in the 75th annual AAABA Tournament title game was at stake. His team faced an opponent that scored a combined 53 runs in four games this week.
Martella’s Pharmacy manager Jesse Cooper turned to right-hander Jake Ansell on Friday night at Sargent’s Stadium.
The Pitt-Johnstown rising sophomore from Connellsville delivered in a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Bandits in the tournament semifinal round.
“Jake Ansell did exactly what we needed to get out of him,” Cooper said after Ansell threw six innings, striking out six and walking two. “He kept them off balance. He worked them. He threw strikes early in counts. He got himself out of some jams early and then really settled in and did a great job.”
Defending champion Martella’s (5-0) did enough at the plate – and capitalized on a few Bandits miscues – to score enough runs to earn a return to the title game.
The opponent certainly will be familiar.
The undefeated New Orleans Boosters (5-0) have won 15 AAABA Tournament titles and have appeared in the final game four times in the past five years.
Last summer, Martella’s edged New Orleans 3-2 to win the host city’s first AAABA Tournament championship ever in an event first held in Johnstown in 1945.
“New Orleans is a great team. They’re well-coached. Every year they come in here and they’re really tough,” Cooper said.
“You have to just be able to stay with them in a game like this. You have to attack them right from the start.
“They’re a great organization. They’ve been here for the long haul and I respect them greatly.”
New Orleans has an all-time 13-3 record against Johnstown, with the host franchise winning in 1970, 2014 and in last year’s title game.
The Boosters also have a 3-0 mark against Johnstown-2, including a meeting in the 2017 title game against Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors.
This will be the third straight year New Orleans will face either Johnstown or Johnstown-2 in the AAABA Tournament championship game.
“There are not many guys that have been here before, but we’ve been very calm this whole tournament,” said Martella’s reliever Ray Watt, who tossed three scoreless innings to close Friday’s contest.
“We’ve been down before. We’ve stayed calm and were able to get back and win the game.”
Philadelphia pitcher Andrew Dietz, who bats third in the lineup, walked with two outs in the first and Greg Delgado singled. Both runners moved up on a throwing error.
A wild pitch gave Philadelphia a 1-0 advantage.
The 6-foot-5 Dietz had bouts of wildness as well as dominant stretches. He walked five and struck out four while throwing 104 pitches in five innings.
Dietz needed only two pitches to record two outs in the top of the fourth.
Then, Martella’s Ty Diehl singled, Watt was hit by a pitch, and Cole Shaffer singled off the top of the screen in left field to tie the score.
“At this level you have to be opportunistic,” Cooper said. “You have to be able to speed the game up when you’re on offense and slow the game down when you’re on defense.”
In the bottom of the fourth, Delgado singled and scored on Dutch Reardon’s two-out double into the right-field corner to give the Bandits a 2-1 lead.
Dietz walked Jake Swank with one out in the fifth.
Swank was running on a 2-2 pitch, and Dylan Gearhart perfectly placed a grounder into the open space with the second baseman covering for a single that put runners on the corners.
An error on Jonny Kutchman’s grounder to second plated a run to tie the game at 2-all.
“We haven’t used the small ball game a lot in this tournament,” Cooper said.
“But we practice it every day in the cage before we go out there. We executed it beautifully today and it set us up to score some runs.
“Dylan Gearhart, just driving the ball through the hole just like we taught him. Some guys came up in big spots and drove some runs in.”
Martella’s capitalized on Philadelphia (4-1) miscues to lead 5-2 in the sixth. Shaffer singled and Cecere walked against reliever Joe Shannon.
Jack Oberdorf singled to load the bases.
One out later, Swank lofted a fly ball to right that was dropped, allowing a run to score.
Gearhart hit a hard grounder back to the mound, but Shannon’s throw for the force out at home sailed wide, allowing a run. A fielder’s choice plated another run.
Watt had three strikeouts and allowed only one hit in the final three innings to make the margin stand against a franchise that entered the game with a .412 batting average.
“I was just trying to keep them unbalanced,” Watt said.
“They had a lot of power in there so we were just trying to get them to hit ground balls and try to keep out those extra base hits. Keep them to singles. Try to get strikeouts. Keep them from having big innings.”
Martella’s had the big inning and produced another big win as well as a return to the title game.