SILVER SPRING — For Jackson McDaniel, it was only his second-best outing of the season. But the performance he turned in Tuesday at Montgomery Blair High School was plenty good enough to make for the best birthday he’s ever had.
The junior right-hander scattered just five hits over six-plus innings on his 17th birthday as Middletown’s baseball team defeated Fallston 5-1 in the Class 2A state semifinals.
The Knights (18-6) will shoot for their second state championship in three years Saturday at Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium, where they will take on LaPlata — a 1-0 win over Hereford in Tuesday’s other state semifinal — in a game scheduled for 4 p.m.
McDaniel was a big reason Middletown advanced, inducing weak contact for much of the game against Fallston (13-9) by throwing an effective fastball with sinking action, often dotting the outside corner or getting in on the hands of the Cougars.
“It’s definitely on the top,” McDaniel said of his birthday, which included his teammates singing “Happy Birthday” to him in their postgame huddle. “Going to [the state final] is a huge accomplishment.”
Through the first five innings, only one Cougar managed to hit the ball out of the infield as McDaniel allowed just one hit — an infield single by Fallston’s Connor Pickle to lead off the second inning.
“I could feel the ball coming out of my hand really well,” McDaniel said. “Everything was working in the bullpen. Usually, my stuff doesn’t work in the bullpen.”
Fallston got to McDaniel for a run on three hits in the sixth inning, with the junior wiggling out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam by inducing a popup to shortstop and striking out pinch hitter Phil Napoli. By then, Middletown’s offense had posted all five of their runs on the scoreboard.
McDaniel saw his performance in the Knights’ 7-1 victory at Boonsboro on April 26 as his best because he pitched a complete game.
“He just is really good at methodically picking guys apart,” Middletown coach Andy Baker said.
Having thrown just 81 pitches through six innings, McDaniel lost some of his command in the seventh, allowing a single and two walks to load the bases with nobody out. The relief pitcher who promptly retired the next three batters to end the game and set off another dogpile celebration near the mound, Graham Brown, also ignited the offense from the start.
On the first pitch of the game, Brown jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Fallston starter Josh Bogdan and hit a sharp line drive through the left side of the infield for a single. Because the Knights beat the Cougars in the 2017 state final, Brown felt the need to quickly send a message to his opponent.
“We’re the same team that we were two years ago,” said Brown, who went 4-for-4. “That wasn’t a fluke.”
Though the Knights didn’t score in the first inning, both Trevor Woelkers and Cole Crist hit the ball extremely hard against Bogdan, who entered the game 5-0 with a 2.93 ERA. The hard contact continued in Middletown’s three-run second inning, with Zach Houck and Brown roping doubles into the left-center-field gap.
The Knights finished with 11 hits, but Baker took just as much stock in his team’s execution with runners on base and less than two outs. In those situations, Woelkers hit a sacrifice fly while Jacob Pryor and Paul McHugh put down successful sacrifice bunts.
Middletown also played errorless baseball after committing four in a 2A West region final win over Oakdale.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” Baker said. “It’s pretty awesome for them to represent our school and our community at the state championship.”
The state championship game will likely feature two strong ace pitchers in the Knights’ Luke Pryor and LaPlata’s Ryan Calvert.
The Mount St. Mary’s-bound Pryor is 9-1 with 1.28 ERA, and he has struck out 71 over 49 innings. Calvert is 7-1 with a 0.39 ERA, having fanned 104 in 53 2-3 innings.
“We have pitching — we have Luke available, I’m available,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a good game.”