Recently, I was witness to something I had never seen before.
Sorta. I'll explain more in a moment.
In the bottom of the first inning of the District 4-4A softball tournament between visiting St. Augustine High School and Palatka High, No. 2 batter Kori Osteen struck out. However, Kiersten O'Niel could not hold on to the softball and it rolled to the backstop. O'Niel got the ball and fired down to first base, but threw nowhere near first baseman Sam Baker.
But what made it worse was second baseman Lauren Avolos and right fielder Linzy Hayes were nowhere in line with the throw and the ball just kept rolling to the right-field fence. Golfers are impressed with tee shots on a par-3, landing their shot so close to the hole.
This, though, was not the kind of accuracy O'Niel had in mind. By the time Hayes got the ball and fired it in, Osteen had circled the bases for an inside-the-park strikeout.
No, it's nothing to be proud of, but it set the tone for the rest of the night as St. Augustine committed three errors in the second inning to triple Palatka's lead and ultimately lead to an 8-2 Panther win.
And, yes, the highlight was the inside-the-park strikeout, which scored the game's first run.
But as strange as that was, believe it or not, it was not the first time I had witnessed an inside-the-park strikeout. And this bases-rounding whiff was a lot more bizarre than the unfortunate circumstances that led to the Palatka run.
It was Saturday, May 21, 1994, and it took place in the third of four quarterfinal-round games in the Ocean County Tournament, which that year was held on two different fields.
The morning started with my usual running the public address system and keeping the official scorebook at Toms River High School East, watching East take out Jackson Memorial, 4-0, and top-seeded and unbeaten Central Regional mercy-rule Pinelands Regional, 10-0, in the second game at East.
The games were spread out with East hosting battles at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Point Pleasant Boro hosting games at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., which because of a mercy-rule in the Central-Pinelands game, allowed me plenty of time to get from East to Point Boro that day.
So after I set up my personal PA for the two games at Point Boro, I collected lineups from both the host Panthers and the defending champions, Toms River North. North was the third seed in the '94 tournament, Point Boro was sixth, so even though the game was at Point Boro, the Panthers were the visiting team on the scoreboard.
And for 4 1/2 innings, neither side budged. North had a scoring threat in the second inning, but third baseman Meg Churchill fielded Carrie Brown's groundball, caught runner Melissa Fazio off the base and threw to catcher Jessie Carrow at the plate for the out.
On the other side, North senior Anna Solosky retired the first 14 batters she faced. Then with two outs in the fifth, Sabrina Grato and Harris delivered back-to-back singles before Solosky struck out Kelly Pearce looking to end the threat.
North finally broke the ice in the bottom of the fifth inning when Brown singled, stole second, moved to third on a groundout and scored when Kari Fix's groundball was mishandled by first baseman Grato.
That was it. That was the run Solosky needed to finish business.
Or so we thought.
On the first pitch of the sixth inning, Megan Shank unloaded to left-center field, the deepest part of Point Boro's park, and ended up on third with a triple.
Solosky had to bear down and keep the tying run from scoring. Jodie Cheasty hit a line drive at third baseman Kelly Gorga. One out. Amy Clark tried a safety squeeze bunt, but popped the ball up in foul territory where Gorga got it and Shank scampered back to third before she could get doubled up.
With two outs, this brought up Meg Churchill, the Panthers' No. 3 hitter in the lineup. The count got to 2-2. Solosky decided to throw a drop ball. Churchill swung and missed and Fix got the ball as the third strike was announced. North players came off the field relieved that they had just gotten out of the jam.
Or so they thought.
Though home plate umpire Lou Gaspari, one of the most respected umpires I've ever seen, had signalled strike three, he never called Churchill out or said the inning was over. That was the hint Point Boro head coach Ric Malta, also the tournament's co-director along with me, needed to yell at Churchill to go to first.
So Churchill did. Shank came home easily to tie it.
Still no North reaction. Churchill kept running. By the time Churchill reached third base, North finally became interested in the situation. But it was too late for them to do anything. Churchill scored and suddenly, North was in the dugout and trailing Point Boro, 2-1.
And the inning wasn't officially over. What Gaspari ruled was the same exact thing that I saw from my vantage point right behind the backstop where I was situated. Though Fix -- who had become North's catcher when regular backstop Bonnie Shapiro decided not to come back for her senior year -- had gotten the ball for the third strike, she trapped it. She never caught it before it hit the ground and that still made it a live ball.
So if you think the Mariner fans were stunned by what had happened, imagine being North coach Becky Miller, who came from behind the fence smiling at Gaspari wanting an explanation from him, then getting it and arguing for five minutes -- FIVE MINUTES!! -- that her catcher didn't trap the ball and had caught it before it hit the ground.
Needless to say, North had to go back onto the field to finish the inning, which it would two batters later when Carrow grounded out to Gorga after Amy Cushion singled.
Now North was off the field, but trailing 2-1 because of this bizarre inside-the-park, two-run strikeout.
And to North's credit, it responded. With Lesley Gertner and Gorga on base, Fazio, a freshman who hit six home runs that year for North, belted a shot over Shank's head in left field for a triple to bring in both runners, then scored on the hit when Shank's throw back in went astray for an error.
North was back ahead 4-2 and the memory of the inside-the-park strikeout that gave Point Boro the momentary lead was almost all gone. All the Mariners had to do was get three outs and they were moving back into the semifinals and to a date with Toms River East on the same Point Boro field.
But Grato singled against Solosky. Then shortstop Gertner made an error on Harris' groundball, but center fielder Kristin Smith got to the ball quickly and fired a strike to Gorga to nail Grato at third for the first out. Pearce grounded out to move Harris to third.
Down to their last out, Shank came through again with a single to score Harris, making it 4-3. Then Cheasty beat out an infield hit to put the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first.
But Solosky got ahead of Clark and on an 0-2 pitch, induced her into a groundball to seoond bsaeman Megan Russell, who stepped on the base for the forceout to finally end it.
North survived, 4-3, but the victory was a lot closer for comfort than even the Mariners wanted it to be. North eventually lost in the bottom of the seventh to East, 5-4, as the Raiders would beat surprising Lacey for the OCT title that year.
Still, no play highlighted that year's tournament more than North's infamous third-strike faux pas that turned into a trip around the bases for two Point Pleasant Boro runners in a crucial, late-game moment.
So what St. Augustine did against Palatka was not original by any means.
It was amusing to say the least ... just like it was 17 years earlier in another state, in another tournament game and on another field.