SLIPPERY ROCK - After recording one of the best baseball campaigns in recent school history through the District 10 playoffs, Franklin's season looked like it might be coming to an end as the bottom of the seventh inning approached against Freeport on Monday in the first round of the PIAA Class 3A playoffs at Slippery Rock University's Jack Critchfield Park.
Considering that the Knights trailed 2-1with the bottom of the lineup coming to the plate and only five hits to their credit as a team through the first six frames against Yellowjackets ace Jarrett Heilman, the prospect of the Knights' magical ride coming to a close seemed to be on the horizon.
But, just like so many times before in coach Brian Schmidt's era, the Knights were hardly done as Connor Rakow came through with a two-out, bases-loaded single to drive in courtesy runner Dale Kinch and leadoff hitter Zach Taylor with the game-tying and game-winning runs, giving Franklin a 3-2 come-from-behind victory and a spot in the second round of the PIAA playoffs.
"Connor is that guy. He's always so calm - almost to the point where it drives me crazy," Schmidt said. "So, he's built for those situations because they don't get to him. He's always loose and not too worried about anything, so nothing is too big for him."
The Knights, who improved to 22-1 and upped their winning streak to 21 games, faced a daunting task in Heilman as the junior right-hander entered the contest at 9-1 with an ERA of 1.50 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that would make a major-league pitcher blush.
But, Franklin finally got to him in the seventh after plating just one unearned run on five hits through the first six frames.
Heilman got Marc Knox to fly out to right field to start the seventh, but Kolton Banfi gave the Knights some life as he slapped a single to right field to put the tying run on base. Kinch came in to run for Banfi and promptly moved to second on Carson Wible's grounder to second, bringing Taylor to the plate with two outs. Taylor managed to coax a walk, his second of the game and the only two allowed by Heilman in his time on the mound, to put the game-winning run on base and chase Heilman in the process due to the pitch-count limit.
"Zach is normally trying to string together some long at-bats and get walks, but when you have a guy like Heilman who throws strikes, I told him that if you get a good one, you've got to win it for us," Schmidt said. "But, he did what he's done all year, he made him work and he got the walk."
With Joseph Hotalski moving from shortstop to the mound, Tyus Wood then slapped a grounder to the new shortstop, who turned and fired the ball to third base for the force out, but the throw was low and Kinch slid in safely and loaded the bases for Rakow. The senior once again came through in the clutch and delivered a ringing single past the second baseman to score Kinch and Taylor and set off a wild celebration for the Knights.
"Heilman, more often than not, is getting ahead in counts and mowing guys down. He throws strikes and he's efficient. But, we were able to get some good at-bats and we didn't strike out a lot and that was our game plan to put the ball in play," Schmidt said. "Tyus really set the tone for us with a 10- or 11-pitch at-bat in the first inning. Those at-bats were huge, so I was really proud of my guys at the plate."
Franklin also had a stellar pitcher on the mound for the game as junior right-hander Ian Haynes kept the Knights in the contest by allowing only two runs (one earned) on seven hits before being lifted with two outs in the seventh due to the pitch count. He finished with nine strikeouts and only one walk.
"Ian pitched a great game," Schmidt said. "I think they hit only three hard balls off of him the whole game and he had a season high in strikeouts."
He did, however, run into a little trouble in the top of the seventh as he gave up a pair of singles to Garrett Ben and pinch-hitter Josh Tirdel before Rakow came on to get leadoff hitter Austin Kepes out on a comebacker to the mound to keep the score at 2-1.
After both teams went scoreless in the first inning, Freeport struck first with an unearned run in the top of the second. Heilman helped himself at the plate as he stroked a one-out double. He then took off for third after a passed ball and came in to score after the throw to third was off the mark and trickled into foul territory.
The Knights tied the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth as Austin Rhoads reached on a one-out error and then stole second. After a fly out to left field, Haynes also helped himself with a run-scoring single.
The Yellowjackets took the lead back in the fifth as Ben led off with a single. Courtesy runner Alec Asti came in for Ben and moved to second on Bradyn Clark's sacrifice bunt and to third on a wild pitch. After a strikeout, Kepes hit a slow chopper down the third-base line for an infield single to score Asti with the go-ahead run.
Franklin had a prime opportunity to score in the sixth, but a miscue on the basepaths ultimately cost them a chance to knot the score. Rakow led off the frame with a single, but he got caught leaning off a first base and was tagged out in a rundown between first and second. That mistake came to fruition two batters later as Kaden Keely cracked a two-out triple to right field. But, he was left stranded as Heilman got Haynes out on strikes to end the inning.
"I went against the grain on some calls late and it didn't work out for us," Schmidt said. "I was really mad at myself as I thought I might have blown it for us, but these guys came through in the seventh."
Rakow led the Knights at the plate with three singles and two RBIs while also getting credit for the win on the mound. Keely added a pair of hits, including the triple, while Haynes and Banfi each added a single.
"I told the guys to get wins like that is something we can build upon," Schmidt said. "It's one game at a time now and we know we'll see better teams as we go. I thought we left some runs on the table, so I think we can hang with anybody."
Franklin will face Philipsburg-Osceola, the No. 2 seed out of District 6 and a 3-1 winner over D-7 champion Steel Valley, on Thursday at a site and time to be determined.