After practically not being able to swallow for the last three innings nor breathe in the last inning and a half, Homestead coach Ernie Millard could finally take a deep sigh of relief as Homestead defeated West Bend East, 2-1, on a Dylan Moser walk-off single July 12 in the WIAA summer baseball playoffs.
Though the season would come to an end at the sectional July 17 after an equally thrilling showing against undefeated West Bend West -- a 2-1 loss in extra innings -- the Highlanders capped off a remarkable late-season run with their 15th straight win.
It had been a rough day for Moser to that point against East. The left fielder flew out and struck out in his first two at-bats. He and Millard both admitted that the second at-bat was below par.
Heading into his seventh inning at-bat with the possible winning run 90 feet away, Moser found himself in quite the stressful situation.
He also found himself in a hug from coach Ernie Millard.
“I could see there was some tension and some stress for him, and he did not have a good at-bat the previous at-bat,” Millard said. “So I told him to just believe in himself, and I believed in him. And I gave him a hug to tell him that it’s going to be fine.”
Walk it off
After missing the first two pitches, Moser found the pitch he liked and rocketed it between the first and second basemen to complete the walk-off single.
“When you go out there in a situation where there’s a runner on third, no matter what the situation is, you just have to put the ball in play,” Moser said. “I got a fastball about at the letters and just put a good swing on it.”
Moser took advantage of West Bend East's decision to bring its infielders in.
“When the infield is in like that, there’s a lot more space to hit the ball through,” Moser said. “So you can’t try to do too much.”
Homestead’s late inning heroics began at the beginning of the frame with a leadoff walk by Brad Woldt. Knowing West Bend East’s previous struggles fielding bunts, Millard signaled for first baseman Andrew White to bunt Woldt to second. An errant throw allowed Woldt to move up to third, which set up Moser’s redemption.
“The key was getting the bunt down,” Millard said. “Because that forced them to make a play, and when we beat them at their place two weeks ago, they mishandled a couple bunts.”
The only other offense came in the fourth inning as Ben Price launched a home run over the right field fence. Millard credited the lack of offense to excellent pitching by East starter Dylan Rondorf, who only gave up four hits while throwing a complete game.
“I would really like to compliment Dylan Rondorf on the way he pitched tonight," Millard said. "He was every bit as good as Joe was.”
Even without much run support, Homestead pitcher Joe Panella thrived, allowing only one run, 10 hits and no walks in seven innings.
“Joe was Joe,” Millard said. “He’s one of the finest pitchers in the state. And tonight, he really showed that.”
“That was the Panella we all knew out there,” Moser said. “He pitched a gem.”
Nine of the 10 hits Panella allowed came with less than two out, yet he consistently found ways to get out of difficult jams.
“That’s where you just have to bear down, deal with what you got and trust your stuff,” Panella said. “And trust the players behind you.”
Panella's ability to work out of danger earned praise from the other dugout as well.
“I’m tipping my hat to Panella,” West Bend East coach Ron Hendrick said. “He did a hell of a job adjusting.”
Homestead started the year 7-10 before winning 15 straight.
“Starting the year, this is a very talented team,” Moser said. “We knew that it was going to click eventually, and when it did, it did not stop.”
In the meantime, Panella left his final game at Rennicke Field with another memory in his cap.
“It’s just the way you want to go out,” Panella said. “This is going to be a great memory to have for the rest of my life.”
Tough loss to West
It was no secret the 16th win would be a tough one, but Homestead nearly pulled the upset that would have reverberated throughout the state.
West, which has not lost since last year’s sectional final and will head to state as the heavy favorite to take the summer crown, picked up a walk-off triple from starting pitcher Anthony Schlass in the eighth inning for a 2-1 win.
“West Bend West is the best team in the state of Wisconsin,” Millard said. “Maybe the best team I’ve ever seen.”
Schlass did not give up a run in conference play this season, but Homestead did score first on Moser’s sacrifice fly in the fourth. West matched that on an RBI fielder’s choice in the fifth.
Schlass finished with one run allowed on six hits in eight innings. The co-Player of the Year in the North Shore Conference is headed to play at Oklahoma next year.
“He’s not a power pitcher,” Millard said. “But he’s an outstanding pitcher.”
Panella was again on his game, allowing just two runs on four hits in seven innings against a superb lineup. Moser flagged a ball in left field in the sixth and threw to first for a double play after a Spartans runner had taken off for second.
Homestead 6, Brown Deer 0
Four errors led to four unearned runs and Brown Deer's baseball team was held to just two hits in a 6-0 loss to Homestead in a WIAA regional semifinal July 11.
The loss left the Falcons to finish winless on the season at 0-24.
Sanoro Kulubonis doubled to center as part of a three-run rally in the second inning, and Moser and Panella drove in runs in the fifth.
Mason Skaja twirled the two-hitter on the mound, allowing just two singles.