WEST PITTSTON — The expected pitching duel never materialized Wednesday evening.
But that was OK with West Pittston, which outslugged Nanticoke to force a decisive game Thursday.
Blaise Sokach-Minnick hit a first-inning grand slam and Jake Kelleher and Jason Wiedl smacked consecutive homers in a five-run second as West Pittston handed Nanticoke its first loss 9-6 to force a winner-take-all game for the Section 5 Little League Major Baseball championship.
The title game will be played at 6 p.m. at the West Pittston Little League field, with the winner advancing to the state tournament at Rostraver Township Little League. The Section 5 champ opens the state tournament at 10 a.m. Sunday.
“They’re already talking about tomorrow’s game,” said Nanticoke manager Al Brown, whose team lost for the first time in either district or sectional play. “They’re ready to go. Sometimes plans don’t work out. Derek (Cease) struggled today. It was the first time he struggled all year. That’s baseball. Baseball is a funny game.”
The thinking coming into Wednesday’s game was it would be a low-scoring, quick contest. Both teams had their aces on the mound — Cease for Nanticoke and J.J. Hood for West Pittston. Both had been tremendous throughout the playoffs. Yet, both pitchers labored through the first inning on a 84-degree day.
Hood got tagged for consecutive singles by Cease and Justin Spencer to start Nanticoke’s first, with Spencer’s hit scoring Cease. Nick Matson and Collin Piestrak followed with walks to load the bases. Spencer later scored on an 8-5 fielder’s choice where Devyn Sura hit the ball so hard off the center field fence that center fielder Sokach-Minnick was able to catch the carom and throw to second for a forceout.
Matson scored on an error a batter later, giving Nanticoke a 3-0 lead. West Pittston, though, took an optimistic approach to the early deficit.
“I told them we were one run better than we were yesterday,” said West Pittston coach Mick Melberger, referring to a 4-0 hole his team was in against Wallenpaupack on Tuesday. “Derek Cease is very tough to come back against, but fortunately we were on him today.”
Cease struggled with his control in the bottom of the first. He walked Evan Melberger, Ethan Elmes and Hood to start the inning. Nanticoke looked like it would get out of the inning unscathed as it recorded two outs, but Sokach-Minnick lined a pitch over the right-center fence for a grand slam and a 4-3 advantage.
Nanticoke tied the score 4-4 in the second when Cease walked, went first-to-third on a dropped third strike and scored on a wild pitch. Once again, West Pittston struck back.
Elmes reached on an error and Hood on a fielder’s choice as West Pittston put on two runners with two outs in the second. Kelleher then hit his third homer in two days, lining the ball so hard off the wall of the indoor practice field beyond the center field fence that it nearly ricocheted back to the infield. Wiedl, the next batter, continued the assault with a lined homer to right center for an 8-4 lead.
Nick Ross plated the fifth run of the second with a single to score Sokach-Minnick, who ripped a double down the left-field line.
“Fantastic,” Melberger said of the timely hitting. “We had batting practice the last two mornings. Just light batting practice. The boys were killing the ball. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but Jake Kelleher what can you say. Three home runs the last two days. Blaise Sokach hot today. Total team effort.”
Hood settled in after the rough first inning before reaching his pitch limit after four innings. He gave up just one hit after the first, an infield single to Cease in the fourth.
“I really don’t know,” Brown said of the bats going silent for the most part after the first inning. “He’s a really good pitcher. He struggled a little bit in the first, kind of like Derek did for us, and then he settled in and we had a tougher time from then on.”
Max Rosen came on in relief for West Pittston in the fifth and surrendered a lead-off home run to Collin Piestrak. He then retired three in a row and got two outs in the sixth before being pulled to keep him eligible to pitch Thursday. Melberger got the final out after surrendering an RBI double to Matson.
Pittston Area 7, Old Forge 0
Gianna Adams threw a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts to lead Pittston Area past Old Forge.
At the plate, Adams had two singles, while Ava Callahan finished with a double and two singles. Cassie Hintze had two singles, and Jaylee Jenkins and Isabella Giardina each singled in the win.
Old Forge pitchers combined for eight strikeouts.
Pittston Area will play Back Mountain at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Old Forge Little League. Back Mountain can win the title with a victory.
Back Mountain 9,
Green Ridge 5
Alex Magdalinski had a key two-run single in the fifth as Back Mountain scored six times on the way to an opening-round victory.
Back Mountain will play Dunmore, a 14-5 winner over Pittston Area, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Dallas High School. The game is a rematch of the Section 5 Major Baseball title game from two years ago.
Frank Nockley had a three-run homer and four RBI for Back Mountain. Fred Lombardo added two hits and Sam Nocito had and RBI double. Andrew Martin picked up the win with Todd Phillips getting the save.
Tom Kennedy had two doubles for Green Ridge, which will play at Pittston Area on Thursday. Ian Coccia had two hits and two RBI. David Blake added a pair of singles.
Kingston/Forty Fort 6,
Back Mountain 1
Mason Matello pitched 4 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts and Jacob Stevens had a two-run triple in Kingston/Forty Fort’s win.
Davis Motyka, Luke Kopec and Antek Evan each had two hits in the victory.
Back Mountain’s Jacob Soderman doubled and Alex Aiello singled.
Mountain Top 2
Tyra Winters doubled, singled and struck out five in two scoreless innings on the mound in Avoca/Dupont’s win.
Ciaran Bilbow and Nick Calloway each had two hits.
Mountain Top’s Jayden Brown tripled with a run scored and Matt Sklarosky singled and scored a run.
Avoca/Dupont finished 3-0 in pool play and earned the top seed in Monday’s semifinals.
South Wilkes-Barre 6
Nick Bayo’s two-run home run and a pair of singles led Swoyersville to a win over South Wilkes-Barre.
Mike Koval and Tyler Casterline had two singles each and Anthony Bayo picked up the win on the mound.
Nick Dunleavy doubled and Josh Bottger and John Barker recorded two singles a piece for South Wilkes-Barre.
West Pittston 9, Nanticoke 6
E: Nanticoke 1, West Pittston 1. LOB: Nanticoke 7, West Pittston 3. 2B: Matson, Sokach-Minnick. HR: Piestrak, Kelleher, Wiedl, Sokach-Minnick.
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar