SHILOH — The Central League regular season was not overly kind to the Manchester baseball club.
That was especially true when it came to playing on the road, where the Indians won just five games all season.
The Central League playoffs, however, offered a clean slate for a team such as Manchester, which earned the sixth-and-final playoff seed with a relatively modest 16-12-1 record.
Taking on No. 3 seed Vikings in a first-round series, the Indians earned a road win to open the best-of-3 series Saturday. After falling at home Sunday, Dave Miller’s team needed another road win to move on the semifinals.
The baseball gods were clearly looking out for Miller and his squad Tuesday. A steady rain to begin the contest helped the Indians race out to a four-run lead before the home team was able to come to the plate.
The rain also played into the hands of Manchester starter Mike Houseal. The hard-throwing right-hander was able to command his fastball well enough during the rain to make his early cushion stand up.
Houseal fanned just four batters, but only allowed three runs and four hits as the Indians cruised to a 7-3 triumph.
Stoverstown up next: The victory sends the Indians (now 18-13-1) into the semifinals against top-seeded Stoverstown (22-5-2 in the regular season). The Tigers, who won the CL title for a third-straight season, will host Game 1 of the best-of-3 series at 5:45 p.m. Thursday.
“The game plan was to just throw strikes,” Houseal said. “And that’s what I did during the rain those first three innings. And thankfully my shortstop and my infield made a lot of nice plays out there.”
Vikings, which finished at 19-13, was able to scratch across two runs in the fifth inning, but reliever Robby Elzinga slammed the door with two scoreless frames to earn the save.
Indians gaining momentum: Tuesday’s triumph was a microcosm of the last few weeks for the Indians, which won nine of their last 14 games to get into the playoffs with a bit of momentum. Strong pitching, timely hitting and stout defense has been more the rule than the exception over the past month.
“We’ve hit all year, but getting that timely hit has been missing at times,” Houseal said. “We get five, six, seven hits pretty much every game, but we’re leaving guys on base. Now we’re starting to get that timely hit and driving those guys in.”
Logan Allison and Chris Beichler each drove in two runs to power a Manchester offense that managed just six hits.
Houseal, Elzinga thrive on mound: Miller pointed to Houseal, a veteran of several seasons with the club, as a big reason his team will move on to play another day.
“With (Houseal) getting married this year and having a whole bunch of things in his life, with his wife graduating from college, he just hasn’t been around as much,” Miller said. “But when he’s here, he’s been very good.”
So, too, has Elzinga, who has flourished in his role as a late-inning stopper.
“His forte is to come in and close games,” Miller said. “And he did exactly what we needed him to do tonight.”
Indians finding their identity: Miller and his club are hoping the winning carries over into the semifinals against the Tigers, who won two of the three regular-season games.
“I think that we have finally found our identity,” Miller said. “We hit a stretch where we won a bunch of games in a row. We’ve played well and we’ve finally realized that we can score runs. And we have some different guys that are picking it up each night.”
Other semifinal series: The other Central semifinal series will pit Jefferson against league runner-up Glen Rock. Jefferson swept Mount Wolf in its best-of-3 first-round series. Game 1 in the Jefferson-Glen Rock best-of-3 semifinal series will be 5:45 p.m. Thursday at Glen Rock.
Both Stoverstown and Glen Rock had first-round playoff byes.
SUSQUEHANNA LEAGUE PLAYOFFS
Conrads 11, East Prospect 3: At East Prospect, Ben Bills led the visitors to the road upset vs. the regular-season Susquehanna League champions by going 2 for 5, including a homer, to go with three RBIs and three runs scored.
Also for Conrads, Josh Knaub went 2 for 3, including a double, with three RBIs; Joe Yourgal homered with two RBIs; Alex Weakland scored three runs and walked three times; and Randy Stewart started the game on the mound, throwing 5 1/3 innings, striking out one, walking three and allowing two earned runs to pick up the win.
For East Prospect, Ryky Smith went 2 for 3, including a double, with one run scored and one RBI, while Austin Denlinger connected for a double.
Conrads takes a 1-0 lead in the best-of-3 semifinal playoff series with Game 2 set for 5:45 p.m. Thursday at Conrads.