HALLAM – Eric McNeil is a bit younger than some of his more veteran teammates, but that doesn't mean that the Hallam catcher is any less wise.
Evidence of that was clearly visible on Tuesday when McNeil played a nifty "trick" on Stewartstown's Justin Sommer in the third inning.
Sommer appeared to be in good shape to score from second on a single to center by Marcus Stevenson. Hallam's Matt Ruth gunned a throw to the plate with McNeil "acting" like there would be no play. As a result, Sommer slowed, thinking he would score easily. But at the last second, McNeil pounced toward the plate, caught Ruth's throw and tagged out Sommer.
Hallam starter Travis Stump and reliever Jaron Shimmel did the rest and the Express claimed a 2-0 triumph to win the best-of-3 Susquehanna League quarterfinal series, 2-1.
Hallam moves on to the league playoff semifinals, where they will face East Prospect, which downed Red Lion 4-1 in the other league playoff game on Tuesday. East Prospect also won that series, 2-1.
"This was just a good, hard-fought battle between two really good teams," Hallam manager Terry Golden said.
McNeil also proved capable with his bat (three hits, two RBIs), but it was his "trick" that a lot of people talked about after the game.
"He pulled that off against Red Lion earlier this year," Golden said. "And you have to practice that. You just can't pull that out of your hat. That's just a veteran ball player who comes up with big hits and big plays. He's a big gamer."
The "trick" was one that McNeil picked up while watching Todd Grove play for Dover back in the day.
"That was a Dover move," he said. "Growing up (watching) Todd. He used to put his hand on his hip and make it look like it's not even coming. And the runner will usually slow down just like he did today. But then at the last second you just jump up and catch it."
Perhaps a big reason Hallam was in the do-or-die predicament was because McNeil was unavailable to play in Game 1 on Saturday. The Vets won that game 2-0, forcing Hallam to pull out two must-win games to extend the season. Back on the field on Tuesday, the 33 year-old Dover High School grad made sure he was on point. He did so early by stroking a single to right that plated Shimmel to make it 1-0. He extended the lead in the third with an unusual double to right that scored Ruth. His high fly ball, which typically would have been easily caught, was instead lost in the sun by the Stewartstown right fielder.
Lucky or not, McNeil gladly took it.
"I personally felt pretty bad (about missing Saturday's game)," McNeil said. "We had a family reunion and I had to skip out on the first game. It's a family-first kind of thing and it's getting tougher as I get older. But I hate not being here for the team."
Hallam pitchers excel: Meanwhile, Stump was deadly when he had to be. The southpaw got into a few jams, especially a second-and-third situation with no outs in the fourth. Stump, however, fanned the next two batters before getting a pop out to second to end the threat.
Shimmel came on to relieve Stump in the seventh with a runner on first and no outs. A single and double steal moved the runners to second and third with no outs. Just like Stump, Shimmel struck out the next two batters before also fanning Ron Trout to end the game.
"Our pitchers had a lot of guts," McNeil said.
That, and a home-field advantage that included a sunset that shined right into the eyes of the batters over the last two innings.
"After the fifth inning it's a whole different ballgame," McNeil said. "Today was a truthful home-field advantage because I know that I can hang in there. I just turn my helmet around and put in on the horizon and hope for the best. And if I can't see anything (catching), it's got to be hard for the hitters."
Stump picked up the victory after going six-plus innings while allowing eight hits and fanning four. Shimmel surrendered one hit and struck out three to notch the save.
Jason Mitchell pitched well for Stewartstown, going six innings while allowing six hits. He struck out two and walked a pair.
Hallam and East Prospect will begin their best-of-3 semifinal series at 5:45 p.m. Thursday at East Prospect. Hallam finished third in the regular season, while East Prospect was second.
The other best-of-3 semifinal series will pit Conrads, which finished fourth in the regular season, against regular-season champion Jacobus. Game 1 is 5:45 p.m. Thursday at Jacobus.
OTHER SUSQUEHANNA LEAGUE GAME
East Prospect 4, Red Lion 1: At East Prospect, Jason Springer's three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth gave the home team an early lead and the Pistons went on to capture the deciding game of the quarterfinal series. Also for Prospect, Matt Witmer and Devin Strickler each doubled, Mark Schauren scored two runs and starting pitcher Adam Yunginger threw 6 2/3 innings, striking out five, walking two and allowing three hits. For Red Lion, Jason Aspito provided the visitors' only run with a solo homer in the top of the seventh, while teammate Mike Godfrey went 2-for-3.
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at email@example.com.