Mt. Lebanon emerging as a contender in baseball
Mt. Lebanon keeping eye on each baseball game
Few expected much from Mt. Lebanon this baseball season. After all, the Blue Devils graduated all but one of its fielders and most of its firepower from last year’s WPIAL semifinal and PIAA quarterfinal club.
Yet, nearly halfway through their 20-game regular season, the Blue Devils sit atop the Section 5 standings with an undefeated record. The Blue Devils are 4-4 overall. With wins last week over previously No.1-ranked Bethel Park, 5-3, and Canon-McMillan, 3-2, Lebo ran its league mark to 3-0.
For all of Lebo’s success though, manager Patrick McCloskey harbors “no delusions” of grandeur. He says that in every game, the Blue Devils were one play away from winning or losing. In fact, Lebo could easily be 0-3.
“Our kids have made those critical plays,” McCloskey said, noting how the Blue Devils have not committed an error and have walked only one in 21 innings. “Our margin for victory has been razor thin.”
Meanwhile, the losses have been lopsided. Lebo started the season on a sour note. Pine-Richland ripped the Blue Devils, 16-0, in three innings and Chartiers Valley posted a 12-2 triumph in five frames.
“We really got smacked around. Pine-Richland destroyed us and CV crushed us,” said McCloskey. “Yes, they are two very good teams but we really didn’t play well and our lack of game experience was pretty apparent.”
In between “competitive” defeats to Shaler, 10-9, and Plum, 5-1, as well as a win over Baldwin, 4-1, Lebo started to improve. Against the Titans, Lebo lost in the bottom of the seventh. The Blue Devils were tied, 1-1, heading into the ninth inning against Plum’s ace before succumbing.
Heeding the advice of his mentor, Chris Haering, the former football coach who is now an assistant at Pitt, McCloskey focused on that improvement. According to McCloskey, Haering believed that the only thing a head coach should focus on was getting better week-to-week. “Regardless of the outcomes, we have been getting better with each practice and game. That’s why I am so proud of our team this year. The players are very determined to get better.”
Improvement was evident against the Hawks as Austin Kitchen hurled five, no-walk frames in registering the win. Sophomore Robert Klinchock relieved Kitchen, who left the contest because of tightness in his back.
Though BP scored first in the bottom of the fourth when Jake McCall singled and scored on Logan Corrigan’s double down the left-field line, Lebo responded with a four-run fifth.
After senior Terry Halligan singled and Kitchen reached base on an error, senior catcher Matt McGraw smacked a two-run double over the third-base bag. Sophomore second baseman Vince D’Orazio stroked another double to drive in McGraw. With two out, senior center fielder Brad Bekampis then singled home D’Orazio.
Each team scored a run in the seventh. D’Orazio had an RBI single for Lebo while David Lemley doubled to score Corrigan, who had walked to lead off the stanza.
“Bethel Park is a great team with tremendous pitching, defense and hitting,” McCloskey said. “I am happy for our players and I am proud of the way they handled the pressure.”
Because teams play only 10 section games, there is plenty of pressure this spring on clubs hoping to make the playoffs out of competitive Section 5. Before the WPIAL realignment, teams in the division played each other three times during a 15-game regular season.
“Every section game is equally as important,” McCloskey said. “Because we only have 10 section games, we take the approach that it’s 10, one-game seasons. Each game has such significance that it really doesn’t matter whom we are playing, we are just trying to find a way to win that game. Then we’ll worry about the next day.”
Though five years removed from winning a state championship, Canon-McMillan proved the challenge for Lebo on the heels of the BP triumph.
Zach Bahm hurled a complete game. In going seven frames, the junior scattered eight hits, struck out seven and walked one. D’ORazio, Klinchock and McGraw each drilled two hits in the 3-2 triumph.
Without the big names of the past, such as Luke Hagy (Cornell), Ian Happ (Cincinnati), the Blue Devils have relied on contributions from all team members. In addition to Bahm, Kitchen and Klinchock, Terry Halligan, Josh Darabant and Austin Eaton have excelled on the mound. Halligan and Kitchen, along with Brendan Depp, have joined Bekampis, the lone veteran, in anchoring the outfield. Senior Lucas Neish, along with sophomores Rob Constantino and Joey Stabile, also lend their talents to the outfield.
When not pitching, Bahm and Klinchock have shared the first base duties. Darren Zaslau fills the shoes of Happ at shortstop. Freshman Eddie Jenkins is also a shortstop. Sophomores D’Orazio and Brian Isler hold down the second and third base sacks. Ted English and Nick Stabile are senior second basemen. Sophomore Cavan Wallace is a catcher.
“Overall, it has been a tem effort,” McCloskey said. “Without the big names, we realize that we rise and fall as one. Hopefully, we can continue to believe in ourselves and keep playing well. We are taking nothing for granted. There’s a long, long way to go before we have accomplished anything that’s worth celebrating.”
However, McCloskey acknowledges that Lebo’s turnabout is cause for some applause.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the effort that our kids have given so far this year. Their calmness in the face of these high-pressure section games has been commendable.”
As quickly as Lebo has turned failure into achievement, McCloskey recognizes success can be fleeting, particularly when the focus is lost.
“With so many good teams in our section, we literally take a game-by-game approach. There is no rotation. There are no match-ups. We are trying to compete in each section game.
“The second we think about anything other than the game that is right in front of us,” McCloskey warned, “we are going to take one on the chin. The section is just that good.
“Our kids understand that everyone else out there is working hard to win, and we need to continue to improve. The most important things is that our kids believe in themselves right now. We need to continue to have the preparation that leads to that confidence, which can eventually lead to success.”
NOTE: Mt. Lebanon dropped its first section game April 15. Brashear edged the Blue Devils, 3-2.