College coaches arrived early Tuesday at Giles Field and watched Montoursville pitcher Andrew Null throw the whole game against Central Columbia. They saw the junior throw without his best stuff.
But they learned just how tough Null is. Ultimately, that might impress them more.
On a day he felt tired from the start and struggled to locate, Null repeatedly worked out of jams and gutted out a six-hit complete game. Oh yeah, he also homered and hit a ground-rule double as No. 4 Montoursville downed No. 13 Central, 5-3 in the opening round of the District 4 Class AA playoffs.
Null helped Montoursville (15-4) reach Friday's quarterfinals vs. Wellsboro, struck out six and held an opponent to three runs or fewer for a seventh straight start.
"He didn't have his best, but he found a way to get it done," Montoursville catcher Cameron Ott said. "He's staying positive and the thing of it is when he's doing good on the mound, he's doing good hitting. They kind of go back and forth to the other spot too. He came up real big today."
Null is one of the district's youngest juniors, still just 16. He struggled at times on the mound last year and took the loss in a quarterfinal loss to South Williamsport. Throughout this season, Null has been a rock, repeatedly delivering in big games and in big moments. He is still young for his grade, but he now has the guts and maturity to match his talent.
Yesterday, facing a team averaging seven runs per game, Null retired the side in order just once, but stranded eight baserunners, left the tying run on third in the sixth inning and never became rattled. His third-inning ground-rule double put Montoursville ahead to stay and every time Central started gaining momentum, Null stifled it whether on the mound or at the plate.
"The whole game I felt drained. I just felt really tired and I think it was mainly because of the heat," Null said. "I feel like I've really mentally improved my game since last year. Some of the situations I was in today I probably would have crumbled last year."
"He's a tough kid and he showed it today," Montoursville coach Travis Wurster said. "He probably lost five pounds sweating but he's a lot more mentally tough than last year. He's changed and he's matured so much."
When things grew difficult yesterday, Null often crouched down behind the mound and calmed himself. Wurster said Null attacked the offseason with vigor and these were the precise moments Null prepared so hard to excel in. He did not want to get into those jams, but he knew how to escape too. In the third inning, he left runners on second and third with one out. In the fifth, he left two more runners on, in the sixth he stranded the tying run at third.
Central (11-10) mounted one last threat in the seventh when Lewis Williams drew a two-out walk. Garratt Barratt worked a full-count but Null clinched the win on his 113th pitch, buckling the first baseman with a beautiful curveball that painted the outside corner.
"I was just trying to clear my head. I just was working on my mental toughness," Null said. "I would tell myself to work through it and pump myself up and that worked."
It worked offensively too. Pierce Ranck ignited a two-run third-inning with a lead-off triple to right field. Null scored him, on a half-swing that demonstrated his strength, with his ground-rule double. Zach Pepperman hit a key two-out RBI single and scored on a wild pitch as Montoursville opened a 3-0 lead.
Central, a district semifinalist last year that had seven starters back, pulled within 3-2 in the fifth on Adam Novak's two-run single, but Null answered. This time, he lined a lead-off home run to dead center field before being intentionally walked with first base open in his final at-bat.
"If he puts a whole swing on it (the double) that ball might be in the bus (well beyond left field)," Wurster said. "If he puts a good swing on it and gets the barrel on it it's going somewhere hard, whether over the fence or not. I always say he's a freak of nature and he is."
The Blue Jays scored in the top of the sixth, but Aaron Cole and Curtis Miller (2 for 3) sparked a rally in the bottom half that Ott capped with a single off the top of the left-field fence. Ott's ball kept carrying and looked like it might be caught so despite the bases being loaded, only one run scored. Still, having a pitcher like Null on the mound and a two-run lead was a nice luxury.
"I originally thought it was very foul and then looked right into the sun and couldn't see. I was thinking he dropped it and was immediately thinking get two. I had no idea," Ott said. "That was huge to get the insurance run. That was the big thing before the inning, get at least one run, so it worked out well."
Montoursville played much better defense than over the weekend and Ranck was outstanding at shortstop. Eight players reached base at least once and Montoursville won its third straight entering Friday's quarterfinal against a Wellsboro team it edged 11-10 in a thrilling Giles Tournament title game last Saturday.
"It's real nice because it's not just one player out there and it's not just like we have three players are good," Null said. "We have the whole team and it takes the whole team and everybody came through big today."
Central000 021 0-3 6 1
Montoursville003 011 x-5 8 2
Derek Duttry, Adam Novak (5) and Cody Bowman. Andrew Null and Cameron Ott. W-Null, (6-2). L-Duttry.
Top Central hitters: Novak 2-4, RBI; Bowman 1-3, 2 RBI; Austin Hargraves 1-1, 2 R. Top Montoursville hitters: Null 2-3, HR, 2B, 2 RBI; Pierce Ranck 1-3, 3B, R; Ott 1-3, RBI; Zach Pepperman 1-3, RBI, R; Aaron Cole 1-3, R; Curtis Miller 2-3, SB.
Records: Montoursville 15-4. Central 11-10.