PINE GROVE — If the weather had not twice postponed the PIAA Class AAA first-round state baseball contest between District 11 champion Pottsville and District 3 runner-up Spring Grove, the outcome might have been an entirely different story.
Instead, it became a story the Rockets would not enjoy.
It became a story about Crimson Tide right-handed pitcher Eli Nabholz.
Nabholz, who pitched Pottsville to its district title victory last Thursday, would not have been able to throw had the game proceeded as scheduled on Monday. A pair of postponements on back-to-back nights, however, gave the Penn State recruit just enough time to rest and take the ball Wednesday night at Walter Stump Field.
Given the chance to start his team's state playoff opener, the Pottsville ace lived up to his billing as a highly-coveted college recruit right from the start. Needing just 77 pitches, Nabholz held the Rockets hitless, while striking out 13.
Spring Grove starter Matt Brooks, meanwhile, was nearly as dominant. The junior, however, was saddled with an unfortunate 1-0 loss. Brooks allowed just three singles all game and struck out five, but surrendered a one-out base hit to Connor Hinchliffe that scored Darian Jacoby in the sixth inning.
That was the lone blemish on an otherwise terrific performance by Brooks, but it was nonetheless enough to end Spring Grove's season.
The Rockets finished at 18-8.
But just think of what might have been had it not been for Mother Nature.
"Eli wouldn't have been able to come back either Monday or Tuesday," Pottsville coach Mike Welsh said. "He threw a pretty good amount of pitches (last Thursday) and we weren't going to run him out there until he was ready. Fortunately he was ready to come back (Wednesday)."
If Nabholz hadn't been able to start, J.J. Spehrley likely would have gotten the ball for Pottsville. Spehrley is no doubt a quality pitcher, but the truth is he's nowhere near Nabholz. Mixing in a hard slider with a fastball that regularly eclipsed 90 mph, the Rocket batters had very little luck catching up against the Pottsville standout.
Nabholz struck out the side in the first and third innings. The Spring Grove hitters were only able to get the ball out of the infield on three occasions.
"He's probably thrown the best that anyone has thrown against us all year," Spring Grove coach Kevin Stiffler said. "He's just tough to hit. We talked after the first time through about trying to get our bats started and trying to hit the ball out front more. But I'll tip my cap to them, definitely, no doubt with the way he threw the ball tonight."
Had it not been for a pitch that hit Spring Grove outfielder Cameron Sterner with two outs in the sixth, Nabholz would have completed a perfect game. To his credit, Nabholz shrugged off that mistake, as well as Sterner's steal of second base, by retiring Trent Baker on a comebacker to end the frame.
That was the extent of Spring Grove's offense, which was unfortunate for Brooks. Spring Grove's ace had only one clean inning — a one-two-three third — but was effective in keeping the Crimson Tide batters off balance. On any other night, his pitching line of six innings, three hits, one run, three walks and five strikeouts would have been enough to earn him a victory.
Instead, it's a performance that may get overlooked.
"I give a lot of credit to that program (Spring Grove) and that pitcher (Brooks), who is a heck of a pitcher," Welsh said. "He kept us off balance all night. He was mixing well and he was pretty dominant himself."
While the Rockets were clearly disappointed with how things unfolded Wednesday, Stiffler didn't want them to hang their heads. Instead, he spoke to them shortly after the contest to reinforce just how special the 2015 journey was. That included a York-Adams Division I crown with just one senior starter.
"There's only one team that is going to be happy when it's all done," Stiffler said. "We're going to look back and remember the memories this year. We were so close to winning our first district title (an extra-inning loss to Donegal). That game could have gone either way. And (Wednesday) ... we just ran into a buzz saw (Wednesday). I really feel like we've shown that we can play with anybody. These guy have a lot to be proud of. I'm proud of them."
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.