“Every year is a different story,” according to Coach Patt McCloskey, and this year’s story was one for the ages. McCloskey is head coach of the Mt. Lebanon boys varsity baseball team—the team that started the season 0-8, and finished by falling just one game short of winning the PIAA Championship, falling 4-1 to Father Judge High School, a Catholic school in Philadelphia.
The turnaround began after the Blue Devils lost to Central Catholic 2-1 on April 10. The coach said that after that game, “We talked as a team and we knew if we wanted to continue our season we were going to have to win the next two games against Central Catholic.” He explained that each of the team’s series during the regular season comprises three games, and prior to the Central Catholic loss, Mt. Lebanon had just been swept by Canon-MacMillan. “We were all realistic enough to realize that if we lost two out of three to Central Catholic and fell to 1-5 (in the conference), that would make it next to impossible to make the playoffs.”
Of the first eight losses, McCloskey said the blame couldn’t be attributed to one particular area. “We had leads in all eight games, and then we just made mistakes late and fell apart.” However, the about-face started the next day when the Blue Devils beat that same Central Catholic team 16-1. “We had a senior leader in Tyler Smith who took the mound in the Central Catholic game, a game we had to win, and he pitched exceptional and we hit the ball really well.”
The momentum continued as the Blue Devils won nine of their next 11 games to make it to the WPIAL playoffs. McCloskey said that losing the first eight games made the finish of the season even sweeter than if they had started 8-0. “Absolutely, because it’s frustrating when you walk away each day feeling ‘We had that game won and we blew it.’ After those eight games we were getting on the bus or going back to the car, and wondering, how did we lose that. Every single win after that made it feel that much better.”
Once those wins started piling up, McCloskey said the kids added a new level of enthusiasm. “In the Hempfield series, I saw (relief pitcher) Weston Airey wearing this gigantic fishing sombrero, which our third baseman Jake Tinnemeyer gave to him. At first I was going to say something like, ‘This isn’t what we do here,’ but then all of a sudden we scored three runs in the first inning against the first-place team in our section, and kids were jumping up and down wearing the hat, and I thought, ‘They’re playing well and having fun, just let it go.'” After that, any time a player scored a run throughout the entire post-season, he got to wear the hat. “They had fun, and when you’re playing well, it’s colorful.”
While getting to the state playoffs was exciting, McCloskey added, “It’s always a challenge because school is out by that time: the kids have graduated, and now you have to tell them, you can’t go on summer vacation—you have to stay here and play baseball.” But it wasn’t as big a challenge as he expected. McCloskey said before the first game against Manheim Township, that as a means of preparation, he texted the scouting report for Manheim to starting pitcher Matt Delvaux, a senior. “I said ‘Hey buddy, this is what they’ve got.’ And he fired back immediately via text, ‘We’re winning states.’ I’m like, OK, the seniors are all in.”
And that became evident as they started to face opponents. McCloskey agreed that it was challenging, as the Blue Devils played three exceptional teams—Manheim Township, Spring-Ford, and Cedar Cliff—and played three near-perfect games to win.
“And that’s what makes it tough, because I thought we played well in the championship, just not perfect, and Father Judge was by far the best team we played all year. Our kids did a lot of great things but Father Judge was just a little bit better.”
David Shields, who led the pitching staff with a 0.94 ERA, started the game for the Blue Devils and yielded just two runs (one earned) in 6-1/3 innings. But Father Judge pitcher David Rodriguez was just that little bit better, pitching a complete game for the Crusaders’ win.
Finishing second in the PIAA doesn’t diminish what the Blue Devils accomplished in their extraordinary season. As McCloskey said, “This year, to have to fight and claw and face elimination three times so early in the year just to get into the playoffs, then winning the WPIAL finals and getting to the state championship game, is something I’ll never forget.”
Having been the head coach of the Blue Devils for 19 years, McCloskey said every campaign is unique and can’t be ranked. He mentioned the WPIAL championship in 2002 when he was an assistant on the team that was No. 1 in the state all year but had lost in the finals the previous season. In 2006 they won the championship after finishing dead last the year before—even though it was the same bunch of players.
“Then this year it was a group that started off not playing particularly well but came back with the greatest finish in Mt. Lebanon history. Every year has a unique story, and that’s what makes coaching high school baseball so much fun; the path to get there is never even remotely the same from year to year.”
The coach admitted the outlook for next year’s team will be different. He said that Shields, “arguably the best pitcher in the state” (he threw a no-hitter in the WPIAL championship win over North Allegheny), will be back for one more year, but added, “You need a lot more than one pitcher when you play a three-game series against each opponent. So we’re going to have to have some pitchers step up and fill the void of the 100 innings we will lose from our senior pitchers, Tyler Smith, Matthew Delvaux, and Owen Mitchell.” In the infield, Tinnemeyer will return at third, Nathan Girod at shortstop, and Brett Hamel at second, as well as Nolan Smith behind the plate. “So we lose two of our three conference starting pitchers and we lose the top four hitters in our lineup. But it’s high school, and you pretty much have to rebuild each year.
“Regardless of how next year goes, I am the luckiest coach in the WPIAL to be at Mt. Lebanon because our kids want to win; they want to win for our community and they’re fun to be around because of their work ethic and their attitude.”