Funny game, baseball.

Not ha-ha funny. But funny in the sense that strange and wacky things happen. Which, come to think of it, is what makes the game so wonderful, so intriguing.

Take Cherokee's hard-earned 6-4 win over Delsea in yesterday's opening round of the prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, for instance.

One minute, Cherokee righthander Alex Pracher, his fastball clocked as high as 91 m.p.h., had a 3-0 lead and appeared to be putting the final touches on a no-hitter.

The next minute, Pracher and Cherokee, ranked No. 1 in South Jersey by The Inquirer, faced a last-inning deficit and, stunningly, were on the verge of being eliminated from the Classic by the unranked Crusaders.

"That's baseball. You can't take anything for granted in this game," said Cherokee coach Bill Haessler, who has been around long enough to speak from experience. "You keep a team around for a while and they might just win it."

That's what appeared to be transpiring yesterday. Cherokee was ahead by 3-0, but it had squandered many chances to fatten the lead as it went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position.

Still, Pracher was cruising and showing why he has a scholarship to Stanford. His fastball was crackling and he had retired 11 of the first 12 batters he had faced; one had reached on an error, but Pracher promptly picked him off.

So Pracher had a no-hitter after he struck out the first two batters in the fifth. The second strikeout, however, caused problems that nearly led to one of the season's biggest upsets.

Funny game, baseball.

The second strikeout, on a nasty curve, skidded past catcher Chris Leitz for a wild pitch, enabling Justin Eaton to reach first. An error and Mike Paollili's double followed, slicing the lead to 3-1. A hit batter and a bases-loaded walk made it 3-2.

"It seems like he's had one bad inning in every game," Haessler said.

In the sixth, a walk, another hit batsman and Matt Hird's two-run double gave Delsea a shocking 4-3 lead - even though it had managed just two hits off Pracher.

"Give them credit; they got the clutch hits when they needed them," Pracher said.

So did Cherokee. Trailing by 4-3 and on the verge of being knocked out of the Classic, the Chiefs quickly tied the score on two hits and an error, then took a 6-4 lead on centerfielder Mike Giuliano's two-run double.

Giuliano's hit followed an intentional walk to 6-foot-6 Ben Flanary, Cherokee's power-hitting first baseman.

As Giuliano stepped to the plate, one of his teammates shouted from the dugout, "No respect, Mike."

Giuliano, a 5-10, 165-pound senior, eventually drilled a 3-1 pitch into left-center for what turned out to be the game-winning hit.

"I feel bad for Ben, because he's a great hitter and he's always getting walked," said Giuliano, who hopes to play at Delaware next year.

Giuliano had been Cherokee's leadoff hitter, but two weeks ago Haessler moved him to the No. 5 spot and inserted Gary Wilson into the leadoff role.

" 'G' doesn't strike out," Haessler said, referring to Giuliano. "He's only struck out three times all year, and we figured if they keep putting Benny on base, we wanted someone up who could make contact."

Giuliano's hit - the second consecutive game in which he knocked in a run after an intentional walk to Flanary - made a winner out of Pracher. Pracher hit a batter to start the seventh, then was relieved by lefty Dan Smith, a sophomore with a smooth delivery and poise beyond his years. Smith retired the next three batters to notch the save and keep Cherokee from becoming a first-round casualty.

"I'm proud of our kids," said first-year Delsea coach Ray Scipione, whose ace, junior Sean Appenzeller, had only five innings of eligibility yesterday and was removed at the start of the sixth. "We only had two kids with varsity experience, and these guys play with a lot of heart. That's a great team we played; they're No. 1 for a reason."

Actually, several reasons. For one, Pracher, Wilson and Smith give Cherokee the area's premier staff. For another, the team is adept at manufacturing runs and delivering clutch hits.

Even on days when baseball is a funny game.

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