Baldwin's Chris Eisel pulls in a fly ball against Seneca Valley during the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game at Consol Energy Park.
By Brad Everett / Tri-State Sports & News Service
When Baldwin surpassed last season's win total six games into this season, the Highlanders showed they were much improved.
Consecutive road wins against Central Catholic and Plum -- two well-respected WPIAL baseball programs -- midway through the season showed they were for real.
Winning the Section 3-AAAA title showed they were very special.
When the Highlanders reached the WPIAL championship game for the first time, the accomplishment placed the group among the best in school history.
The 2014 Baldwin Highlanders earned that high praise this season courtesy of a surprising run of success that spanned two months. A spring filled with notable feats came to an end Monday after a 10-3 loss to District 9 champion DuBois in a PIAA Class AAAA first-round playoff game at Brockway High School.
Just as they did in the WPIAL title game against Seneca Valley, the Highlanders raced to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning, only to go on to lose. DuBois scored five runs in the bottom of the first to flip the game upside down. Baldwin trailed, 6-3, after three innings, and DuBois scored three runs in the fourth to take full control.
Nick Bernick led Baldwin offensively with three hits, but Bernick, the Highlanders' starting pitcher Monday, was hit hard, allowing eight runs and 10 hits. Chris Eisel homered, while Tom McCarthy and Jordan Gitzen added RBIs.
A year after finishing 5-12, Baldwin (16-4) won its first section title since 2006, earned its first playoff win since 2005, and reached a pair of program milestones for the first time -- advancing to the WPIAL final and qualifying for the PIAA playoffs.
"I'm darned proud of my guys and our coaches," Baldwin coach Dan Caponi said after a 5-2 loss to Seneca Valley in the WPIAL championship.
Baldwin started the season 9-0. After back-to-back defeats, the Highlanders won seven in a row before the loss to Seneca Valley.
The Highlanders were strong offensively and on the mound nearly all season. They scored at least nine runs 13 times and allowed three or fewer runs 12 times. Caponi's team surrendered only 13 runs during that late-season, seven-game winning streak, and scored at least 10 runs in all but one of those games.
McCarthy and fellow senior Alex Pantuso were two of the stars. McCarthy led the Highlanders with a .531 batting average and 21 RBIs during the regular season. Pantuso had six home runs and 20 RBIs during the regular season and was the team's pitching ace. Pantuso, a Slippery Rock recruit, finished 6-2.
Bernick, a senior, and junior Morgan Schmitt were among the postseason standouts. Bernick drew a bases-loaded walk to drive in the winning run in a 2-1, nine-inning victory against North Hills in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
Bernick and Schmitt drove in two runs apiece in a 14-4, five-inning win against Plum in the quarterfinals. Schmitt hit a key two-run homer in a 10-2 semifinal win against Moon Area.
Baldwin, the No. 2 seed, roared to a terrific start in its championship debut, but came undone in the fifth when No. 16 seed Seneca Valley, which entered the WPIAL playoffs with a 6-11 overall record, scored four runs to take a 5-2 lead. That turned out to be the final score, giving the Raiders their third title in four seasons.
"They got some key hits. You have to take your hat off to them. That's baseball," Caponi said afterward.
"When you go out there and compete, that's what happens sometimes. They hit the ball and it wasn't cheap."
Pantuso and Eisel had RBI singles in the first for Baldwin, which managed only three hits over the final six innings against Seneca Valley ace Connor Coward, a Virginia Tech recruit.
"They came here to win, so it's disappointing," Caponi said after the WPIAL title game.
Winning a state title just wasn't in the cards, though.
Four starters return next season -- Eisel, Gitzen, Schmitt and Dylan Finocchi -- and will try to match and perhaps even surpass the lofty accomplishments of this year's team.
Considering what they achieved this year, that group will have a lot to live up to.
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