A hard-hit liner back to the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning knocked Eric Ruth to the ground. But the pitching ace quickly popped up, gathered his fallen cap, and continued, more determined than ever, to go about finishing what he had started.
Down by 3-0, with one out and runners on first and second, Parkland would score a run and briefly threaten North Penn's once-comfortable advantage. But Ruth, as he had done throughout the season, doused the flame in never-a-doubt fashion.
Strikeout, on three pitches. First-pitch liner to first baseman Scott Christy. Game over.
Ruth and the Knights then began celebrating the school's PIAA Class AAAA state championship victory over the Trojans. Wide eyes and smiles were everywhere at Altoona's Blair County Ballpark.
Of his mind-set after the seventh-inning knockdown, Ruth said, "I was just focusing on the game. I wasn't going to let that bother me."
Very little troubled Ruth this season. The hard-throwing righthander went 12-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 851/3 innings. He walked 25.
For his efforts in sparking a veteran North Penn squad to the program's first state title, Ruth is The Inquirer's Southeastern Pennsylvania baseball player of the year. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder went 3-0 with 29 whiffs in the state playoffs.
Against Parkland, the District 11 champion, Ruth, throwing in 85 to 88-m.p.h. and spotting his fastball on the outside corner, tossed a complete-game six-hitter with six K's and no walks.
"Holding a team like that to one run is all you can ask from a pitcher," North Penn coach Bob McCreary said afterward.
Ruth, bound for Winthrop University, a Division I program in Rock Hill, S.C., threw 73 pitches, 52 for strikes. Through four innings, his pitch count was just 35. Trailing by 2-0 at the time, the Trojans were in serious trouble.
"That was my lowest pitch count the entire year," said Ruth, who mixed a fastball, curveball, and change-up. "I felt great the entire game. I didn't get tired at all."
The 18-year-old from Hatfield, a three-year varsity member, closed a terrific high school career with a 20-1 record and 207 punchouts in 1441/3 innings. His ERA was a mere 1.84. As a junior, he went 8-0 with a 1.84 ERA and 71 K's in 53 innings.
This year's highlight came in a first-round state matchup against Chambersburg. Ruth fanned a career-best 16 and yielded only four hits in a 6-0 shutout of the District 3 champions. He struck out the side in the second, third, fifth, and sixth innings.
All season, McCreary credited him for ability and confidence to throw inside. "I worked the inside corner because it's harder for batters to catch up and hit that pitch," Ruth said.
Ruth's parents, Dan and Elaine, are his biggest supporters. At Winthrop, he plans to major in sports management.