WESTFIELD, Masss. - Jett Steinman told his Lenox team that he was ready to pitch if they needed him on Friday. Called upon almost immediately, the right-hander was true to his word.
Steinman came on in relief in the first inning and went the rest of the way, leading the rally as the Millionaires came back for an 8-5 victory over Ware in a Western Mass Division IV semi-final at Bud and Jim Hagan Field on the Westfield State University campus.
“Before the game the coaches asked me how my arm was, and I told them that it was good and I was ready to pitch today if they needed me,” Steinman said. “I was ready from the beginning, so I just wanted the ball. I was locked in and staying focused, because we really wanted to win this game. We didn’t know what to expect when this season started, but we are so excited to be in the finals now.”
Lenox (14-9) trailed by three runs after the first, but the team kept fighting back to earn its spot in Saturday’s Western Mass championship, where it will face the Hopkins Golden Hawks at 4 p.m. at the University of Massachusetts. Hopkins (13-6) advanced with a win over Granby in the other semifinal on Friday.
“For the last six or seven games this team has been on a mission,” Lenox head coach Kevin Downer said. “We’ve been aggressive at the plate, we’re hitting the ball and hitting line drives and we’re never giving up. I’m so proud of these kids.”
As well as Steinman pitched on Friday, Downer had complete confidence in starter Trevor Sweener. It was a nice problem for Downer to have, as Sweener came into the contest with a 6-1 record on the season and all the tools needed on the mound. But it took Ware just two pitches to take the lead, as Devin Slattery clubbed the first pitch of the game deep to left for a lead-off double and Ware starter Keith Smith bounced the next pitch past the diving third baseman for an RBI single.
The next three batters each reached base to keep things going, prompting Downer to make the switch after Sweener had thrown just 15 pitches.
“I knew I had to bring Jett in then, because you have to get there to the final first, and then go from there,” Downer said. “Trevor has done well this year, but he struggled today and he was missing up in the zone. I told him that I wanted to keep him in there, but we had to bring our ace in and get to Western Mass, and then go from there. He’ll get the ball tomorrow, and tomorrow is another day for him.”
Steinman entered with the bases loaded and one out. An infield error allowed two more runs to come in, but the Millionaires held the rope from there to allow time for a comeback. Steinman tossed three scoreless frame to follow, doing a nice job of staying ahead in the count and forcing batters to swing at his best pitches.
“They scored some runs on us so I wasn’t sure what to expect right away, but then we started hitting the ball and putting runs on the scoreboard,” Steinman said. “I struggled a little bit here and there, but first-pitch strikes are huge. Then I know I am in the driver’s seat from there and I can just let my team do the job if they hit the ball.”
Steinman and his teammates certainly hit the ball as well. After stranding three base runners in the first three innings, Lenox got things going by batting around the order to take a 5-3 lead in the fourth.
Lenox put the pressure on right away as Steinman singled and Ricky Armstrong walked to put some ducks on the pond. A passed ball pushed them into scoring position, and Sweener delivered a sac-fly RBI to left field to score Steinman and get the Millionaires on the scoreboard. Walks to Josh Hunter and Luke Patella filled the bases, and Cooper Shepardson drove in a pair with a single to center and John Fielding followed with a liner up the middle that drove in two more to give Lenox the lead.
The Millionaires kept applying the pressure, which ultimately led to the deciding runs. Steinman reached on an error and later scored on a fielder’s choice RBI from Hunter in the fifth, and he singled and scored ahead of Armstrong, thanks to an RBI single from Sweener in the seventh.
“Those were huge,” Downer said of the late run support that helped keep his team in control to win and advance to the title game. “It was an awful spring, the worst one since I’ve been coaching and I think maybe the worst one since I’ve been alive. But these kids were in the gym and they kept working and kept working. They are a family, bottom line.”