ERIE — The beautiful thing about the game of baseball is that there is no play clock, shot clock or game clock. There’s no way of shortening an opposing high school baseball team out of its 21 guaranteed outs to use up at its leisure in a regulation game.
Titusville saw that first hand, and then some, against a resilient Fairview club in Monday’s District 10 Class 3A Quarterfinal at Ainsworth Field in Erie. The Rockets saw a three-run seventh-inning lead vanish to force extra innings, but fortunately made their five-run advantage hold up in the extra frame as Titusville edged Fairview, 9-8, in eight innings.
Starting pitcher Cole Culver and the Rocket offense gave Titusville (12-9) control of the game in the opening frames. Braden Roberts drove home Andy Fish on an RBI groundout in the top of the first to tally the first run of the contest. An inning later, Culver plated Hunter Titus and Derek Beach on a two-run double off the right-centerfield fence, and then was chased home on a two-out RBI single by Fish to put Titusville ahead 4-0.
“Our hitting was there in the beginning, and it was huge to get the lead early,” Titusville coach Roy Schweitzer said.
Meanwhile on the mound, Culver kept the Tigers offense at bay through the first four frames. Although Culver fell behind in many counts and found himself working with runners on base in each inning, the southpaw managed to stay unscathed by stranding six runners — including a Tiger on second and third with only one out in the bottom of the third.
Fairview (10-5) finally got to Culver in the bottom of the fifth frame when Sam DiStefano’s two-out single scored Anthony Soltis to cut the Rockets’ lead to 4-1. However, Culver rallied back to get Phil Thiem to fly out to center to avoid any further damage. After Culver recorded the first out in the bottom of the sixth, the Rockets were forced to go to their bullpen due to Culver reaching the pitch limit. The Rocket southpaw surrendered only one run on five hits and two walks while striking out eight batters
“We were fortunate to get what we got out of Cole,” Schweitzer said. “He wasn’t as sharp but Fairview was up there swinging. They were not an easy out and they had long at-bats. He was falling behind and not getting a lot of first-pitch strikes, but he hung in there and battled. It wasn’t his best day, but he gave us a win and we gave it away. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t able to pick that up.”
The change in hurlers proved to be a change in fortune for the Tiger hitters. Despite Rocket reliever Fish coming in and getting the next two batters out to move the game into the final inning of regulation, Fairview would have more luck in the bottom of the seventh.
Needing just three outs to advance to the semifinal round, Titusville’s 4-1 advantage slowly began to dwindle as the first three Fairview hitters reached base on a walk and two singles.
Mason Bender’s RBI single and Aiden Rubilatta’s RBI fielder’s choice put Fairview down by just one run with one out. With DiStefano in the batter’s box, Rubilatta swiped second base to reach scoring position. However, DiStefano was unable to advance Rubilatta as he flied out to left fielder for the second out of the frame.
Thiem came to the plate with the game on the line and hit a check-swing grounder to first base that looked like the final out of the contest. Unfortunately for Titusville, the ball took a bad hop off of the lip of the infield grass and rolled past the Rocket defense to allow Rubilatta to score the tying run.
Fairview looked to win the game on the next play as Thiem immediately stole second base before Nick Sundberg singled to right field. Culver fielded the ball and fired a strike from his spot in the outfield grass to catcher Mike Obert who tagged out Thiem to force extra innings with the game tied at 4-4.
Instead of dwelling on the fact that they allowed a three-run lead to escape them, the Rocket offense quickly went to work. Titusville rallied for five runs off of Tiger relief pitcher Soltis, who had held the Rockets hitless to that point from the third inning on.
Brian Clark reached on an error to start the rally and then advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Obert. Titus and Beach followed with back-to-back RBI singles that gave Titusville a 6-4 advantage. Following a walk by Culver and a sacrifice bunt by Garrett Knapp, Fairview intentionally walked Fish to load the bases with two outs. Zach Abrams came to the plate and made the Tigers pay with his two-run single. Roberts concluded the outburst with an RBI single that put the Rockets ahead, 9-4.
Once again, the Rockets found themselves just three outs away from a semifinal berth. However, the Tigers would not go down without another fight.
Knapp came onto pitch in relief of Fish in his first playoff appearance. He surrendered a leadoff single to Ryan Rzodkiewicz, but rallied back to strike out the next two hitters.
Now at the top of the lineup with two outs, Fairview chipped away at its five-run deficit with an RBI single by Soltis. Bender followed with a double to put two runners in scoring position. Rubilatta reached on a Rocket fielder error which also allowed Soltis to score to make it 9-6. DiStefano followed with a two-run double that plated Bender and Rubilatta before advancing to third on a throwing error by the Rocket defense.
Clinging to its one-run lead with the tying run just 90 feet away, Knapp faced Thiem who drove home the tying run just an inning ago. This time history would not repeat itself, as Knapp got Thiem to chase strike three out of the zone to clinch the Rockets’ 9-8 victory.
Schweitzer was relieved that his team came away with the victory but wants his team to keep its collective foot on the gas pedal going forward.
“When you’re up 4-0 and you don’t put your foot on their throat and make sure they are dead and let them hang around in the game, things like this happens,” Schweitzer said. “We didn’t put our foot down in the later innings. Give Fairview credit though because they didn’t quit.”
Titusville will face Region 2 champion Franklin in the District 10 Class 3A Semifinals on Thursday at a site and time to be determined. The Rockets fell in both region games this season to the Knights, who advanced to Thursday’s semifinal with a 9-2 victory over Greenville on Tuesday.