The Altoona Mountain Lions love playing baseball at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
The Lions have won six of the 10 Altoona Curve Classic championships, including the last three years in a row, and they captured the District 6 Class AAAA title Thursday at PNG.
Altoona's Christian Helsel outdueled Central Mountain's Von Walker, 2-1, in a dandy pitching matchup as the Lions won the 6-AAAA crown for the first time since 2006.
Mirror photos by J.D.?Cavrich
The Altoona baseball team celebrates moments after beating Central Mountain in the AAAA finals.
"We like to think we do," Altoona coach Tom Smith said smiling when asked if his club enjoys playing at the local minor league ballpark.
Then quickly turning serious, Smith noted: "It was a tough game for any team to lose. Your heart goes out to [Central Mountain] because they played a good ballgame and we happened to score one more run than them.
"We're happy, very happy."
Altoona sophomore shortstop Jaret Berardinelli, starting because Helsel was pitching, drew a bases-loaded walk with two outs to force in Ben Wyland with the Lions' first run in the second inning.
"Jaret was patient at the plate," Smith said of Berardinelli's at-bat.
Central Mountain got an unearned run in the fourth when Altoona committed a pair of infield errors, but the Lions retaliated immediately, pushing over what proved to be the game winner in the bottom of the fourth.
Chris Sinisi, whose throwing error enabled CM to tie the game, opened the bottom of the fourth with a line drive to left - inches fair - and wound up at third when the Wildcats bobbled the relay.
"We had to get a spark somehow," Sinisi said. "I knew I hit it hard and I just wanted to run as fast as I could.
"I turned second hard and thought maybe I could get a triple out of it but Coach gave me the hold sign," Sinisi said. "As soon as they booted it, he told me to come to third."
With one out and facing an 0-2 count, junior pinch hitter Jake Chesney laced a single over second to plate Sinisi with the tie-breaker.
"Pinch hitting is one of the hardest things to do in any sport," Chesney said. "Coming off the bench cold and getting that hit ... it was my biggest hit of the year.
"Getting the game-winning RBI is a great feeling."
"Jake came up in a tough situation and I can't take any credit for it," Smith said. "Hitting coach Jake Hargreaves called it two innings before it even happened. He called [Chesney] for that situation and deserves the credit. Great call on his part and Chesney came through in the clutch."
But Helsel was the biggest story. With the radar gun consistently hitting the mid-to-high 80s, Helsel blanked Central Mountain on two singles, struck out eight and didn't walk a batter by mixing his speeds. He retired the Wildcats in order in the first, third, fifth, sixth and seventh innings and his pitch count topped out at 90.
"I haven't started that much," said Helsel, who will play collegiately at Ole Miss. "I've been mostly a reliever this year, but I've built up my innings a little and Coach [Smith] thought I could pitch this game.
"It was my first complete game," said Helsel, who has made three starts, "and I was going the distance no matter what."
"He was lights out," Chesney said of his teammate. "It just shows you he's a Division I athlete."
Smith couldn't say enough about Helsel, either.
"The gameplan was for Helsel to throw strikes," Smith said. "He's a strikeout pitcher and we told him to throw strikes and, if they hit the ball, they hit the ball. We wanted him to pitch the whole game and didn't want his pitch count to get too high.
"He was phenomenal."
Central Mountain coach Mike Kramer noted that the fourth-seeded 'Cats upended State College and No. 1 seed Mifflin County to reach the finals.
"It's tough to take the loss this way because we had some good battles getting into this position," he said.
"It was a good high school game and my hat goes off to Altoona and their pitcher. They did what they had to get the win."
Game notes: Altoona has won seven overall D6 titles, the others coming in 2001, 1994, 1985, 1969 and 1966. ... Wyland reached base three straight times for the Lions - single in the second, hit by pitch in the third and walk in the fifth. ... Lions reportedly will not start play in the state tournament until Monday, June 4.
CENTRAL MOUNTAIN (1): L. Wise cf 300, Stover ss 300, V. Walker p 310, Hill c 301, Nicodemus 1b 300, McGregor dh 301, Nyman rf 000, Quiggle lf 200, B. Walker 3b 200, J. Wise 2b 200. Totals - 24-1-2.
ALTOONA (2): Helsel p 300, Green lf 300, Fink 1b 300, Wyland 3b 111, Lombardo c 200, Negri cr 000, Sinisi 2b 211, Oswalt cf 100, Arnold dh 100, Chesney ph-dh 201, Stayer rf 000, Berardinelli ss 200. Totals - 20-2-3.
SCORE BY INNINGS
Central Mountain000 100 0-1 2 1
Altoona010 100 X-2 3 2
E-Stover, Wyland, Sinisi. 2B-Sinisi. RBI-Berardinelli, Chesney. Sac - Sinisi. SB - Nicodemus. WP-V. Walker 2.
Altoona IP R ER H SO BB
Helsel (W) 7 1 0 2 8 0
Walker (L) 6 2 2 3 7 5
Records: Central Mountain (14-6); Altoona (15-5).