READING — There were moments Wednesday evening when the realization seemed to hit the Red Lion players that they were playing on the big stage.
The Lions were competing in the District 3 Class 6-A baseball title game at First Energy Stadium, the minor league home of the Reading Fightin' Phils.
At times, that big-time atmosphere seemed to catch up to the Lions.
C.J. Czerwinski, who got the nod to start the title game against Cumberland Valley, had trouble finding the strike zone early.
Tyler Stabley, who came on in relief of Czerwinski in the sixth inning, had similar issues initially.
A handful of wild pitches and a couple of errors certainly didn't help either, especially against a pitcher the caliber of CV's Ryan Rudrow.
Rudrow, who came into the contest sporting an ERA below 1.00, wasn't perfect but the right-hander took advantage of some early run support. The Eagles scored single runs in the first two innings before adding two more in the third. That proved to be enough for Rudrow, who picked up a complete-game victory, with the Eagles claiming an 8-2 triumph.
“I think there were some jitters for Red Lion," Lions coach Kevin Lawrence said. "Especially in that first inning. And that spread around ... that was an equal-opportunity. It's a big moment and it was the first time that a Red Lion team's ever been here.”
While Lawrence is a real competitor, the Red Lion coach didn't want to bemoan what went wrong Wednesday. Instead, Lawrence had a positive message for his team.
“I was proud of them because I thought that we settled in," he said. "And it may not feel like it right now, but that is still an historic accomplishment. Life is about two things — relationships and experiences. And not winning tonight shouldn't do anything to diminish the relationships that they have with their teammates and this was an experience that no other Red Lion team has ever had.”
After a rocky first two innings, Czerwinski did find his groove. The right-hander allowed five runs, only two of which were earned, over 5 1/3 innings.
That outing was more than enough to give his teammates a chance to stay in the game. The Lions had runners on base in all but the third inning, when they went down quickly on five pitches. In every other inning, however, they were just a hit or two away from evening things up.
“In this game, the ball finds you," said Lawrence, who is a former girls' basketball coach at Susquehannock. "So many things have to go right in a game as democratic as baseball. Unlike basketball or football, you don't get to pick who you're giving the ball to.”
The Lions had their chances against Rudrow, who improved to 6-1. Several balls were hard hit, but unfortunately most of them were right at a CV player. Conversely, the Eagles were able to take advantage of some balls that landed just out of the reach of Red Lion players.
“He's a very good pitcher," Lawrence was of Rudrow. "He may not be the hardest thrower, but he can command his pitches to either side of the plate for a strike in any count. At the high school level, if you can command three pitches for a strike in any count, you're going to be pretty good, and that's what makes him so good.”
Nathan Hodgkinson drove in both Red Lion runs in the fourth inning with a two-run single to center. That was just one of five hits all night for the Lions, who did draw four walks.
The Lions will now await their first-round game of the PIAA playoffs next week. They will face District 11 champion Freedom Monday at a time and location yet to be determined.
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.