Howard stages a dramatic four-run rally against No. 2 Severna Park, in the bottom of the seventh, to walk-off with the 4A state championship
by Pat O’Malley
Many young players today know little of the late Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees, who was famous for obvious one-liners, such as, “It ain’t over, til it’s over.”
In 2018, the No. 2 Severna Park Falcons and No. 5 Howard Lions are living that brilliant utterance to the utmost. For the second year in a row, the latter Lions have upset the Falcons in their final at-bat while down to their last strike. This time it was for the big one – the Maryland State Class 4A Baseball championship and Howard came away with its first in school history by 5-4 on Leido’ s Field at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Friday night.
Last year the Lions eliminated the Falcons, 4-3, in the state semis with a late seventh inning rally. This year’s dramatic comeback also came in their last at-bat as they scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh with cleanup batter and DH junior Ryan Kulick delivering his second single of the night, driving in the tying and winning runs with two strikes and two outs.
“I thought we had enough to win, but for the second year in a row, it came down to the last pitch,” said Severna Park’s fifth-year coach Eric Milton, the former University of Maryland star who went on to pitch 11 years in the major leagues.
A wild celebration by the ecstatic Howard players in the middle of the well-manicured diamond signified the first state baseball championship for Howard County’s oldest school that opened its doors in 1952. The MPSSAA baseball state championship tournament did not commence until 1975, so it is the Lions first in 43 years.
“It was a great comeback, that’s one for the books,” said Howard’s 8th year head coach Nick Hoffner who led the Lions to their third appearance in the final four, the last two under him, the first in 1998. “We had a great comeback against them last year and we were able to do it again this year. These kids never believe they’re out of it.”
The game featured quite a pitchers’ dual between the teams’ aces, junior Gabe Delgado of Howard and senior Cameron Clark of Severna Park who locked horns before each had to come out in the seventh inning per the state pitching rules that say a senior has to come out when his pitch count gets to 105 which each did.
Howard scored an unearned run run in the bottom of the first on a two-out base knock by Matt Flynn. The 1-0 lead stood up until the sixth inning when the Falcons, three-time state champions under late coach Jim McCandless in 2003 (3A), 2005 (3A) and 2009 (4A), making their 8th appearance in a final four, tallied a pair of runs. Luke Guy doubled in one run and the other scored on an error.
Delgado, who got the win against Severna Park last year, pitched six full innings into the seventh giving up four runs on four hits, walked five, hit a batter with a pitch and struck out six before giving way to the pitch count while Clark did get two outs in the seventh before getting to 106 pitches (One can go over the pitch count to finish the last batter you face). Clark gave up four runs, three earned, five hits, walked two and struck out 11.
Severna Park added to its lead with two more runs in the top of the seventh off Delgado, who was named this season’s Howard County Pitcher of the Year with his 5-2 record and 1.69 ERA. Singles by Kody Milton (2-for-3 in game) and sophomore cleanup DH Brendan Simonds plated the last two runs, which came off senior reliever Brian Jakubek, who caught the first six innings before taking the gear off.
“My catcher did a good job and kept his composure,” said Hoffner. “That’s what he does. He got out of that jam right there.”
Jakubek retired the next three batters he faced and ended up notching the win finishing the season at 5-0 as a fireman.
Howard came to bat for a final turn in what Severna Park would call “déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi liked to espouse.
Alex Campbell and Delgado, who re-entered in his 7th spot, singled to start the bottom of the seventh, but Clark notched a ‘K’ before walking Jake Alagna to load the bases. Senior shortstop and leadoff man Craig Wiley, who batted .415 for the season, slightly behind Kulick’s .435, was fanned by Clark, who obviously had his number, for the fourth time on the night. Making it two outs on his 11th and final strikeout and with a 4-2 lead (second run scored on a passed ball), Clark had to depart and was deprived of finishing his last high school game because of the pitching rules, that a lot of coaches don’t like.
“He had to come out because of his pitch count,” said Milton. “That’s two years in a row it came down to the last pitch and we had to take him out of the game. I wish we could have kept him in. It’s cost us twice.”
Coach Milton, who had been going to his son, the Maryland committed Kody, in such situations late in the season stunned a lot of people, by going to his No. 2 starting pitcher in sophomore right-hander Evan Lewis. Lewis promptly walked Jerry O’Neill and Jakubek on 3-2 counts to make it 4-3 with the bases loaded as Kulick strode to the plate.
Lewis got the left-hand hitting Kulick in the hole at 0-2 and the Lions’ leading hitter fouled off the next two pitches before sending a single to center for two runs and the ball game.
“I just didn’t want to strikeout, just wanted to put the ball in play,” said a smiling Kulick afterwards. “He gave me a fast ball and I just hit it. They’re (Severna Park) a very good ball club.”
As for the pitching change and also his players who took it really hard.
“We had our No. 1 and No. 2 starters ready for tonight,” said Milton, who said he will return as coach next season. “Our kids were awesome and we had them (Howard) in the palm of our hands. It just didn’t work out. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
4A BASEBALL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
(At Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen)
No. 5 HOWARD 5, No. 2 SEVERNA PARK 4
Severna Park (21-4) 000 002 2 - 4 6 1
Howard (20-5) 100 000 4 - 5 6 3
Cameron Clark, Evan Lewis (7) and George Lesher; Gabe Delgado, Brian Jakubek (7) and Jakubek, Shayan Kassiri
WP-Jakubek (5-0) LP-Lewis (5-2)
2B: SP-Luke Guy.