Red Knights one away from state championship
AKRON — While the Toronto baseball team exited Canal Park shortly after advancing to the Division IV state championship game on Friday, the fans that remained sang “Happy Birthday” to head coach Brian Perkins in unison.
The 50-year-old veteran skipper waved his arms in appreciation and made his way through the sea of smiling faces, with his team already waiting at the top of the stairs.
It was a great time to celebrate, but he and everybody else knew it would only last one night.
“It feels great, but the job’s not finished,” A.J. Clegg said. “We’re going to come back (today) and finish the job. And, man, it’s going to feel even greater.”
First came a date with Antwerp. Everybody pitched in to help gift-wrap Perkins’ present, but Clegg threw in a few more bucks than what the budget called for.
Clegg tossed a four-hit shutout, while striking out seven Archers, during Toronto’s 8-0 victory.
“A.J. and I had a talk earlier this year. He has the ability to be one of the top pitchers in the area or anywhere,” Perkins said. “It was just a matter of confidence. He stepped up on the biggest stage there is against a very good Antwerp team and shut them out. He proved something to me, and I’m just happy for him.”
If it wasn’t for Nate Karaffa, Clegg would be the team’s ace. Friday marked his second shutout this tournament, doing the same against Huntington in a Region 15 semifinal on May 30 in Lancaster.
“It was the same stuff,” he said. “I trusted my coaches, the pitch calls and the field behind me. I also had confidence throwing strikes.”
What really sparked Clegg’s dominance was a pair of pick-offs at second base, one in each the first and second innings. The Archers (19-6) were fooled by his high steps and quick 180 darts to Nick Sninchak.
“It definitely took a lot of stress off of my back,” Clegg said. “Picking them off definitely shifted momentum from their side to ours, so they definitely helped a lot.”
Along with his golden arm, Clegg made an impact at the dish with the other two members of the 7-8-9 portion of the lineup.
“We’ve been saying all year it’s a team effort. We don’t worry about individual stats or anything like that,” Karaffa said. “That really showed with the bottom of our order picking us up, especially early on in getting us momentum.”
Clegg hit eighth and had two singles. Zac Berger, batting seventh, collected a single and an RBI triple that gave the Red Knights (26-5) a 1-0 lead in the second. No. 9 hitter Brendan Matyas singled, stole third and scored on a wild pitch in the third.
With Berger’s and Clegg’s threat to go deep, and Matyas utilizing his speed and bunting ability, it’s no wonder why Toronto calls that part of the lineup “juice, juice, bunt.”
“They really did (step up), and that’s what makes this team special. It can be anybody at any time,” Perkins said. “We’re very hot right now one through nine, and that’s where you need to be at this time. Brendan Matyas had a really great game in the No. 9 hole. Zac and A.J. did, as well.”
Matyas singled to open the third and reached second on a Nick Chetock sac bunt. With two away, he stole third and scored on an errant throw. Shortly after, Karaffa doubled and later scored on a dropped fly ball in right-center field, giving Toronto a 3-0 advantage.
In the top of the fourth, Berger scored on a wild pitch from third. The score stood 4-0 in favor of Toronto until the final inning.
With the bases loaded and two away, Karaffa stepped in the batter’s box.
“In a state semifinal, a four-run cushion is not enough,” he said “That’s a really good team over there, and they could get five runs in one inning. I knew when I went to the plate I could break it open, and I was able to make good contact on the ball.”
The Division IV Eastern District Player of the Year delivered with a bases-clearing, opposite-field triple. He then scored on a Sninchak RBI single.
“That was a big shot, a bases-clearing triple that late really took the wind out of the sails for Antwerp,” Perkins said. “It really gave our kids a lot confidence going into the last half of the final inning.
“Nick’s a big at-bat guy. When guys get on, he gets a big bat. He came through once again.”
Karaffa finished with two doubles, that triple and three RBIs.
“We were here two years ago, so you could sense that,” Karaffa said. “Most of our starters were on that team. It was a completely different feeling. My sophomore year, we were more nervous. (Friday), you could just tell before the game that we had a lot of confidence. We really wanted to get the win and were calm about it.”
TIME AND TIME AGAIN
Friday’s Division IV semifinals started later than anticipated. Toronto and Antwerp did not begin until 8:36 p.m., even though they were schedule for 7 p.m. In the second Division I semifinal, St. Ignatius defeated Hilliard Darby, 4-3, in 13 innings. It became the longest game in Ohio state tournament history.
CLIMBING THE HILL
If the Red Knights want to capture their second state championship, they have to face Hillsdale, the No. 1 team according to Prep Baseball Report, at 1 p.m. today. Toronto is ranked fifth.
The Falcons defeated Minster, 1-0. Jay Luikart tossed a two-hit shutout and, because he threw 91 pitches, will not be available for today.
“They are a really good hitting team,” Karaffa said. “We were able to see them earlier (Friday), and we knew coming in they have really good bats.”
Hillsdale may be in a pickle. During its celebration on Friday, senior Garrett Goodwin injured his leg. On the roster, Luikart, Garrett Crites and him are the only players listed as pitchers.
But, with or without him, the Falcons (28-2) are ranked No. 1 for a reason.
“Hillsdale is a very athletic, strong team that can hit the ball. We’ve seen them a few times, and man can they hit the ball,” Perkins said. “They’ll put the ball in play, they have speed and good pitching. So, they’re not ranked No. 1 by Prep Baseball for nothing.”