John Fees’ spring baseball season accurately mirrors that of his Pitt-Johnstown team.
Fees started slow, losing his first four decisions, but has rebounded nicely in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division.
The 6-foot-2 senior right-hander from Carrolltown was on his game Friday afternoon. Fees tossed a four-hitter in Pitt-Johnstown’s 3-1 victory over Slippery Rock in the opener of a Point Stadium doubleheader.
“I was just trying to stay in the zone the best I could and staying ahead,” said Fees, a Cambria Heights High School graduate. “Once I stayed ahead, I could pitch my game instead of having to work back in the count.”
Fees’ outing enabled the Mountain Cats to split. Slippery Rock used a four-run first inning as a catalyst to a 5-2 victory in Game 2.
The Mountain Cats (17-21, 12-10 PSAC West) will travel to The Rock (22-14, 11-9) for a doubleheader today. Pitt-Johnstown then closes with a home-and-home set of doubleheaders against Gannon on April 25-26.
“We’re solid in the fourth and final spot right now but that could change,” Williams said of the PSAC West race. “Then, next weekend could change it again. It could come down to the very last game of the season.”
The Cats will need strong outings from Fees and veteran right-hander Derek Younker to make an impact in the program’s first season in the PSAC postseason.
After Friday’s win, Fees evened his season record at 5-5 with a 4.47 ERA. By comparison, he had an 8.83 ERA after his fourth loss on March 9 against Post. Fees allowed 16 runs in his first two appearances but has given up a total of 17 runs in his past nine games.
“We’ve been relying on our seniors,” Williams said. “Johnny has been coming on every week. He started off slow, 0-4, and now he’s 5-5. He’s been a big-game pitcher for us the last three years.”
Fees had a 5-3 record as a junior and was 4-4 as a sophomore.
“I threw my slider a lot,” Fees said. “My slider and fastball worked. I threw a couple change-ups but that didn’t work as well.”
Pitt-Johnstown collected nine hits in Game 1. Jake Stern singled and scored in the second inning after singles by Matt McMillen and Dillon Boyer. Jake Warner was hit by a pitch and scored after singles by Kyle Morrow and Matt McGhee in the third. The Cats added insurance after Stern singled and scored on Nate Pope’s double to right-center field in the sixth.
In the second game, Slippery Rock built a 5-0 advantage early and Anton Constantino made the margin stand. The junior left-hander limited Pitt-Johnstown to five hits.
The Cats’ lone runs came in the bottom of the second on back-to-back doubles by Morrow and McGhee, and a McMillen infield single.
“Mainly, I just kept my fastball low and outside,” said Constantino, a North Allegheny High graduate from Wexford. “My curveball was working, which helps. They were just rolling it over and grounding out.”
Pitt-Johnstown starter Pope quickly retired the first two batters of the game, and McMillen nearly made a sensational running catch of a pop foul behind first base. The ball popped free, giving Adam Urbania new life.
Urbania followed with a double down the left-field line, the first of six consecutive Slippery Rock base hits, including three straight doubles.
“There are two outs, nobody on, and they end up putting a four-spot on the board,” Williams said. “You can’t do that this late in the season. That hurt us. We just couldn’t get enough runs to come back. But we battled the rest of the game.
“That’s one thing I can say about this team and its resiliency. They just keep coming at you. We’re going to go up there on their home field and try to get two (today).”
Alex Bell and Kevin Jovanovich each doubled, and Jordan Faretta, Logan Brown and Carson Kessler each singled in the four-run inning.
Will Kengor was hit by a pitch, and scored after singles by Jake Nogalo and Urbania to make it 5-0 in the second inning.
“It was awesome to have that cushion,” Constantino said. “You have more confidence. The defense was great. It’s a good feeling.
“We just came off a hard loss, so we needed that first inning to get some runs and some cushion.”
Constantino retired Pitt-Johnstown in order four times.
“Realistically, we weren’t letting the ball travel and trying to take it to the right side,” Williams said. “We had a lot of ground outs to the left side. We got a little anxious when we got down and didn’t practice what we’ve been preaching.”
Pitt-Johnstown freshman right-hander Brantley Rice provided the home team with a highlight. Rice pitched 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. Pitt-Johnstown’s defense helped by turning three doubleplays in the fourth, fifth and six innings.
“Stone Rice is an excellent pitcher,” Williams said. “I have seen it the last five years. I’ve known him since he was 14. The kid knows how to pitch. He’s going to be a good one.”
Today’s doubleheader should provide more of the same from each team.
“Every game it feels like we’re getting better and better,” Fees said. “This is a great time to be moving forward at the end of the season.”
“We have two good pitchers going, so it should be great,” Constantino added.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.