MIDDLETOWN — A day before the Class 2A West region final, Middletown’s coaching staff intentionally made the game of baseball challenging for its players.
With a pitching machine dialed up to fire off pitches at around 90 mph during a practice, the Knights were asked to drop down successful sacrifice bunts. Middletown coach Andy Baker recalled some of his players being visibly frustrated when they tried hitting some curveballs in the low 80s.
“We’ve been telling them all year, ‘We’re trying to put you in uncomfortable situations,’” Baker said Friday at Middletown, where the Knights faced their share of uncomfortable situations.
Oakdale jumped on Middletown ace Luke Pryor for two runs in the top of the first inning. Three innings later, the Bears scored four more runs off Pryor, whittling a five-run deficit to one.
Asked if the Knights had any issues with nerves, Pryor didn’t hesitate before saying, “We had it.”
“Trust your guys, trust your coaches,” Pryor said after the Middletown beat Oakdale 9-6 to win its second region title in the past three years. “We had it the whole way.”
Then catcher Chase Weller, remembering all the times the Knights have been tested in practice, chimed in.
“Our coaches have been preparing us for this all year long,” he said.
No pressure at all?
“Hakuna matata,” said Pryor, who had given up six runs all season before surrendering six against the Bears (12-9).
Middletown (17-5) will face Fallston Tuesday at Montgomery Blair in the state semifinals. The game time hasn’t been announced.
Pryor, a senior, helped his cause at the plate with a mixture of power and smallball.
Pryor cut into Oakdale’s two-run lead with a solo home run in the first inning, but when he came up with runners on first and second with nobody out in the third, he laid down a successful sacrifice bunt, moving the runners to second and third, respectively.
“Coach Baker has been saying all playoffs, ‘You get a bunt and a blast,’” Pryor said. “That’s what we did today, and it worked out.”
In this case, the blast came from Cole Crist who followed Pryor’s bunt by lining a two-run double down the left-field line to highlight a four-run inning.
Pryor later added his own two-run double in the fourth inning to extend Middletown’s lead to 7-2, but Oakdale collected four hits off Pryor in the fifth, including a two-run homer by Jake Turner that made it 7-6.
“[Going into the game], I was really amped up,” said Pryor, who lasted five innings and struck out eight batters on the mound. “I was really excited. The first inning, I was trying to throw 100 miles per hour — was trying to blow it by everyone.”
The same could be said for Graham Brown, who pitched two innings in relief of Pryor and struck out four.
With two outs and nobody on in the top of the seventh, Brown made things interesting by walking consecutive batters to bring the tying run to the plate. But he got Oakdale’s Ethan Reifer on a flyout to right, prompting Weller to charge the mound and tackle Brown in celebration of the region crown.
“I couldn’t breathe out there,” said Brown, who found himself at the bottom of a deep dogpile.
While Weller, a sophomore, was visibly elated, Brown and Pryor, who helped lead the Knights to a state title two years ago, quickly turned their attention to the next game.
“It was a good win today, but it’s over with,” Brown said.
“It feels great, but two more will feel a lot better,” Pryor said. “Just getting started.”
But Baker noted the accomplishment in winning a rugged region full of top-notch teams. On their way to a region title, Middletown beat Poolesville — the 2017 3A state champ — and perennial state power Williamsport.
“They earned the right to be here, they were the No. 1 seed, they dealt with the pressure, battled some adversity a couple times,” Baker said. “We’ve battled injuries this year.
“It definitely is a good accomplishment for them. They’ve worked really hard, and they’ve done what we’ve asked them to.”
Oakdale, meanwhile, also had a tough road to the region final, knocking off Century, last year’s 2A state champion.
“We did a nice job later in the year, kind of got our feet under us a little bit defensively and got pitches over the plate,” Bears coach Sam Mills said. “We started really showing what our potential could be.
“We didn’t start off that way, so it was nice to see the boys grow throughout the year.”