Bad day comes at bad time for Red Dragons

STRUTHERS — It was a bad day to have a bad day for the Niles baseball team.

The conference-champion Red Dragons put together a fantastic regular season and were impressive in their two tournament games leading up to the Division II Struthers District final. But, for one of the few times this year, they struggled in several facets of the game, and an upstart Canfield team played a big role in that demise.

The No. 2-seeded Cardinals used a patient approach at the plate, and it led to a six-run fifth inning and a 9-2 victory over top-seeded Niles on Tuesday at Bob Cene Park. Canfield plays Chagrin Falls in a Division II regional semifinal at The Ballpark at Hudson on May 25.

The victory over the Red Dragons (19-5) ended a great run by Niles, which dominated the All-American Conference’s White Tier and had allowed one hit in its first two postseason games. Canfield (16-6) had six hits and took advantage of two errors, five walks, two hit-by-pitches, a balk, a passed ball and a wild pitch — among other things. Several of the miscues came in the big fifth inning, when the Cardinals took a 9-1 lead.

“We had the bad inning, where balls were getting kicked around,” Niles coach T.C. Guarnieri said. “(We had) passed balls and we weren’t hitting our spots. We were walking guys and just giving them runs left and right.

“We haven’t had a game like that all year. I don’t think it was the pressure. I don’t think it was the environment, I just think it was one of those days.”

The Cardinals took advantage right from the start.

Leadoff hitter Alex Hernandez hit a line drive to begin the game that went off the leg of the Niles shortstop and caromed into the outfield for a double. The next batter, Dominic Pilolli, drilled a triple into the right-center field gap. He eventually scored with two outs, when a slow chopper went off the glove of the Red Dragons’ third baseman.

Canfield starting pitcher Ian McGraw, who allowed two runs in five innings, said the early runs put his mind at ease.

“It was very important,” said McGraw, a junior left-hander. “I was nervous to start — I’m not going to lie — and that really calmed me down. My teammates were there behind me (on defense), and I was just able to throw like I always have.

“Once I threw that first pitch, I felt locked in. I started off with a strike, and it felt like just another game.”

Canfield scored seven runs — five earned — off Niles starting pitcher Tyler Srbinovich, who entered the game with an ERA under 1.00. Srbinovich was partly victimized by several close calls and some shaky defense that extended innings and allowed extra runs to score.

Much of the damage came after he left, with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning. The Cardinals led, 4-1, and relief pitcher Corbin Foy hit a batter to bring in another run. A passed ball, a wild pitch and a walk brought in two more, and Drew Havrilla capped the inning with a two-run single.

“Offensively we really came out aggressive, and that was really the difference in the game,” Canfield coach Matt Koenig said. “I know that Srbinovich is a heck of a player, and the fact that we went up there with some really good at-bats was the difference as far as I’m concerned. Putting the ball in play all the time, and our guys just fought the entire game.

“We had baserunners all the time, and we were trying to run as much as we possibly could, and we put some pressure on them.”

Niles had a chance to get back in the game, loading the bases with one out in the bottom of the fifth, and while a walk brought in one run, the middle of the order couldn’t get it done as two pop outs ended the threat.

It was a tough way to watch a great senior class depart, Guarnieri said.

“This is a really good group of kids,” he said. “It’s a great group of seniors. They’ve done an awesome job all year. They’ve really set the tone and pace for our kids coming up. I couldn’t be more proud of those kids. They played their butts off for me all year. They’ve played through pain, played through adversity — it just wasn’t our night.”