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Penn Hills Junior Legion challenges for postseason berth

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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Penn Hills Junior Legion's Josh Gerken slides under the tag of Murrysville pitcher Brian Pirone covering home Thursday, June 28, 2018, at Haymaker Park.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Penn Hills Junior Legion second baseman Jay Sullivan competes against Murrysville Thursday, June 28, 2018, at Haymaker Park.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Penn Hills Junior Legion pitcher Max Oiveri competes against Murrysville Thursday, June 28, 2018, at Haymaker Park.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Penn Hills Junior Legion's Zach Miklos just gets out of the way of a pitch against Murrysville Thursday, June 28, 2018, at Haymaker Park.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Penn Hills Junior Legion right fielder Dom Sullivan makes a catch against Murrysville Thursday, June 28, 2018, at Haymaker Park.

After only winning five times last season, the Penn Hills Baseball Association’s Junior Legion team has won more games through the first 12 games of the season, even though the team isn’t yet firing on all cylinders.

The pitching staff and defense has carried Penn Hills (7-4-1) as it navigates through the North Division of the Westmoreland County Youth Legion league.

“The big part for us has been pitching and defense. Last year, we struggled pitching and defensively. This year, our pitching has been tremendous, and our defense has been tremendous. The issue has been hitting. We’ve been struggling to hit pretty much the whole year,” coach Mike DeVito said.

“Our pitching and defense has kept us in every game and has given us the opportunity to win every game. Hitting-wise, we’ve been trying to manufacture runs. We’re trying to bunt guys over. We’re trying to take it one base at a time. We’re having a hard time stringing hits together.”

After starting the season 2-3-1, Penn Hills won five games in a row with wins over Lower Burrell, Kiski, Hempfield East, Mt. Pleasant and Connellsville. With the bats coming alive, Penn Hills outscored opponents 31-12 during the five-game winning streak.

Max Oliveri and Josh Zambito have led Penn Hills’ pitching staff. Oliveri has a 0.38 ERA, while Zambito has registered a 1.40 ERA.

A.J. Collins, Josh Gerken and Brandon Tierney have made contributions on the mound. Penn Hills is allowing 3.8 runs through the first 12 games, which is second best in the North Division.

At the plate, Collins, Tierney, Oliveri and Ryan Kumanchik have led Penn Hills, which is averaging 4.3 runs scored, third best in the North Division.

Last season, Penn Hills struggled with making errors. This past spring, many of the players were involved in the high school baseball program under first-year coach Jerry Cammuso, who preached position versatility.

However, DeVito has shifted his focus to having players field only one or two positions, which many believe allows a player to focus on their defensive assignments and leads to a lesser amount of defensive mishaps.

“They were moved around a lot to different positions they haven’t played in the past,” DeVito said.

“Here in the summer, we’re settling them back into positions they’re familiar with. I think they have a lot more confidence in those positions. They can just play the game instead of thinking too much whenever they’re in unfamiliar positions.”

Even though Penn Hills recently had what was considered its best all-around game in a 10-3 win over Connellsville on June 26, DeVito points to the 2-1 win over Mt. Pleasant on June 24 as an example of this year’s team.

“That is pretty much the type of games that we’ve been in. We might get three hits a game. We’re trying to steal bases, bunt runners over and trying to get one run in at a time,” DeVito said.

“If we get a lead, we’re pretty hard to beat with how our pitching and defense has been playing.”

As the regular season comes to a close, DeVito and the rest of the Penn Hills Junior Legion baseball program has their sights on something they weren’t able to accomplish last season — the playoffs. Penn Hills is second in the North Division behind Monroeville, which has a 13-2 record.

Andrew John is a freelance writer.

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