WINDSOR, Colo. – For the MAC Elite 2021 squad on Sunday, the top of the batting order was in the middle of everything good.
Taking on the top-seeded NOCO Storm in the Pathway Games 16u championship game, MAC Elite saw its first three batters go 6-for-10 overall; the lineup also rode standout pitching by Cesar Ledesma and Dalten Snell to the finish line, where MAC Elite claimed a 4-0 victory at Aaron Cook Field at Chimney Park.
MAC Elite (Rio Rancho, NM) had to fend off a scare in the semifinals, falling behind 7-1 to CNBA Red (Kearney, NE) before flipping the script and scoring 11 straight runs to earn a spot in the final. Eric Romero, Garrett Rede and Ledesma each had two hits against NOCO Storm, with Romero scoring twice and both Rede and Ledesma driving in two runs.
Both teams hit into double plays to end threats in the first inning, and the Storm stumbled in the second when a runner failed to tag up from third on a fly ball to left-center. MAC Elite got untracked with four straight hits in the third, anchored by a two-run triple from Rede, to take a 3-0 lead.
Ledesma doubled in Romero with a double in the fifth, and that was plenty of margin for the team from New Mexico.
“I like to work (the ball) to the opposite field and make something happen, and if I get a pitch inside, just try to pull it down the line,” said Romero, who also had two stolen bases. “We were pretty down in the (semifinal), but I kept saying just chip away, chip away. That’s what we do. I was able to get a hit, and I always say hits are contagious.”
“It’s hard, third game of the day, keeping the guys focused and hungry. They came together in the semis, battled back, but the pitchers came through and we made the plays that we needed,” said MAC Elite coach Benito Martinez.
Ledesma pitched a solid three innings, getting nice movement on the ball, but his control was a bit ragged. When he hit two batters with one out in the fourth, Martinez brought in Snell, who immediately doused the NOCO Storm (Johnstown, CO) rally with two strikeouts.
Snell closed his 3 2/3 innings by allowing just two hits and two walks to go with six strikeouts, ringing up three K’s in the seventh inning.
“Snell pitched a lot Saturday, so we were waiting to see how he felt. We were in a tight spot there, and we knew he was the guy to go with,” Martinez said.
“I get to watch the pitchers there in center field, come in and congratulate them, then hit the ball,” Romero added. “We might need to fix a few things here and there, but otherwise everything was really good here.”
Braeden Saya had three hits for the Storm in the final.
The was the first year for 16u bracket play at this event; with most of the college coaches watching the older age group, event director Gino Grasso wanted to create something meaningful for the assorted 15u and 16 teams that came to the Front Range.
“Changing the format and making it a tournament setting was a huge success this year; it created great energy, and we got a lot of positive feedback on that,” Grasso said. “The other thing to note was the College Workout in Friday (in Greeley). We had 130 players and 15 colleges there. One thing I have to say, there was a lot of talent in the 16’s this year – it really jumped out.”
“We were at the Pathway Games in Albuquerque and really liked the set-up. With the quality of the teams that are here, we definitely wanted to travel and come to this one. We got the boys a chance to compete,” Martinez added.
By Eric Kolenich
Throughout the past five years, Jonah Wilkes has learned the many intricacies of the knuckleball, including the importance of keeping his fingernails longer and properly shaped.
“Nail trimming, I’ve found, is essential to throwing a good knuckeball,” Wilkes said.
The rising junior pitcher for the Bradley Eagles Academic Prep took the mound Wednesday in the bottom of the fifth inning of the Pathway USBC Underclass Championships in Virginia. Wilkes threw one knuckleball, which emerged from his right hand with no spin, headed toward the upper left quadrant of the strike zone and dived to the bottom right. The batter swung, hit a lazy fly ball to centerfield, and the inning was over.
Wilkes returned in the sixth, allowed a base runner on an error and then retired the next three batters.
He was 10 or 11 years old when he started learning about the pitch, which is rarely seen in baseball today. His arm velocity wasn’t particularly strong, so if he was ever going to make it as a pitcher, he needed to find another way to fool batters. He began transforming himself into a junkball pitcher.
To learn the pitch, he turned to YouTube. He watched video after video, learning about release point, arm length in his delivery and yes, fingernail grooming.
“There are so many videos on YouTube,” he said.
Mastering the pitch, he learned, would be no easy task. It took three years of practice before he could consistently throw it without it spinning. At that point, he realized he could take the mound in a game and use it.
"Such a long learning curve is normal", he said. "Professional pitchers who throw knuckeballs often need years of apprenticeship before they are prepared to throw it against a live hitter. You can’t just throw a knuckleball, you have to be a student of the pitch."
Wilkes said he’s aware of only two major-league knuckleballers, Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox and Ryan Feierabend of the Toronto Blue Jays. R.A. Dickey famously won a Cy Young Award throwing it. At its best, a knuckleball can curve both right and then left and be so deceptive even the catcher struggles to receive it.
Before Wilkes entered the game Wednesday, he warmed up with one catcher who had a sore knee. When the catcher told his coach his knee was in pain, the coach made Wilkes warm up again with another catcher so the new catcher could get acclimated.
Bradley’s coach, Chad Carroll, has never coached a knuckleballer before. Wilkes was added to his team right before the Pathway USBC tournament, and Carroll didn’t know what exactly to expect before Wilkes took the mound in the fifth.
“That was the first time I had seen it, too,” Carroll said. “It was pretty fun to watch.”
Carroll said he wasn’t nervous to insert a crafty specialist with stuff sight-unseen. Once Wilkes looked him in the eye and told him he could get the job done, Carroll put his faith in the pitcher.
Wilkes hopes to play college baseball, but his most likely avenue to do so is as a catcher, he believes. He batted cleanup in Bradley’s 9-4 win over FTB, was walked three times and scored three runs. The knuckeball is his college backup plan. Carroll says if the pitch gets good enough, and the right college team sees it, there might be an opportunity for him to throw it at the next level.
“If the kid is athletic enough, and/or the knuckleball is nasty enough or has enough movement, I think a college coach who has enough creativity would jump on that,” Carroll said.
And maybe the knuckleball could be the antidote to baseball’s home run surge. Since the pitch is so much slower – Carroll guessed Wilkes’ pitch was thrown somewhere around 58 mph – it’s harder to hit over the fence. You have to be a pretty strong hitter to knock a knuckler out of the park, the coach said.
Still, there’s a reason why so few pitchers throw knuckleballs at a high level. It’s a difficult pitch to throw effectively against strong hitters. Many pitchers turn to it as their last resort, their last hope for playing professionally when their career is sputtering to an end.
For Wilkes, it’s an experiment that, so far, has produced some good results. And maybe more than anything, it’s been fun.
“Who doesn’t want to throw a knuckleball?” he said.
By Eric Kolenich
RUTHER GLEN, Va. – When the top of the first inning had ended, nine batters from the Bradley Eagles Academic Prep had stepped into the batter’s box, six of them had been walked to first base, and four had completed their trip around the diamond to score a run.
Buoyed by its opponents' inability to throw strikes in the early innings Wednesday, the Bradley Eagles (Washington D.C.) breezed to a 9-4 victory over FTB Mid Atlantic in pool play of the Pathway USBC Underclass Championships at the Virginia Sports Complex.
All told, FTB’s pitchers walked eight batters and gave up just five hits. Steven Trone, FTB’s third pitcher of the day, fared the best, throwing the final three innings and allowing three unearned runs and striking out four batters.
Maybe the Eagles’ best moment of offensive glory came in the fourth with two outs and a runner on first. Andrew Timberg hit a line-drive double over the left fielder’s head, scoring the runner.
The runner, Xavier Grimaldi, had the steal sign, and Timberg knew he only wanted to swing if he was sure he could hit it. He didn’t want to foul it off and spoil Grimaldi's effort. But he got a fastball middle-in, just where he likes it. So he turned on it and pummeled it to the left-field fence.
In the two innings prior, FTB had put four runs on the board and briefly cut the Eagles’ lead to two. Timber’s double served as the Eagles’ knockout punch, stretching the lead back to four.
“That’s half winning the ball game,” Timberg said, “feeling like you can win.”
Before Timberg stepped up to the plate, his coach made a prescient call to his batter.
“Coach said hit a double, and I hit a double,” Timberg said.
“Keep it going, we’re not finished,” outfielder and pitcher Jonah Wilkes said to his teammates. When one teammate said the Eagles needed to reach 10 runs, Wilkes responded, “Why stop there?” The Eagles put one more run on the board in fifth and settled for nine.
The Eagles spread out the innings among three pitchers: Noah Potholm, Timberg and Wilkes. Potholm, the starter, allowed one run in two innings. Timberg gave up three runs (two earned) on four hits, and Wilkes shut the door, allowing only one base runner in 1.1 innings.
“Our pitching and defense kept us right there and minimized their big (third) inning,” Eagles coach Chad Carroll said.
By limiting each pitcher’s pitch count, Carroll hopes to have all his arms available again Thursday, though he said Timberg might get some rest. He threw four different pitchers in their first game of the tournament.
“It’s to keep as many guys as fresh as possible,” he said.
Wilkes, who recorded the final four outs and allowed only one base runner on an error, threw a knuckleball. Because of his slow arm action, Carroll said, Wilkes is capable of eating up innings.
Wilkes also batted cleanup and scored three runs, though they came on three walks. It can be frustrating never getting a pitch to hit, he said.
“But I’d rather walk than strikeout,” he added.
Grimaldi scored two runs and recorded an RBI. Timberg scored twice, and Andrew Wagner added two RBI. Cole Peverall went 2 for 4 with a double.
Patrick Sullivan and Zach Wainio each hit a double for FTB.
By Eric Kolenich
RUTHER GLEN, Va. – This time last week, Spencer Fihart was playing up with his organization’s 18u team. Even though he’s 15, he gets called upon to join the older guys.
“I like playing anywhere and whenever I can,” he said.
Rejoining his age group this week, Fihart pitched four strong innings and recorded three hits Wednesday as the TopHand Reds (Virginia) beat the Mid-Atlantic Orioles (Virginia) 6-1 in pool play of the Pathway USBC Underclass Championships at the Virginia Sports Complex.
Playing with 18-year-olds isn’t necessarily more difficult, Fihart said. It’s just different, and it’s a lot of work doing both. He went four-plus innings Wednesday, allowing no runs, two hits and one walk. He has a change up and slider in his arsenal, but he mostly stuck with his fastball and curveball this time. Those two pitches were working well for him, and he didn’t need to mess around with the others.
He allowed one base runner to get in scoring position in the first, second and fourth, but he never let a runner get closer to home than 90 feet. It wasn’t nerve-wracking that the Orioles kept putting runners on base, Fihart said. It helped that the Reds had a 5-0 lead after two innings.
“You gotta rely on your defense and let them do their work,” he said.
Plus he was economic, Reds’ coach Any Castro pointed out. When he exited in the fifth inning, Fihart had thrown about 50 pitches.
The coaching staff called the pitches, something Fihart isn’t used to. In school, his catcher calls them. Given how few of his pitches were hit by opposing batters, he couldn’t get too upset.
The Orioles’ best chance at mounting a rally came in the fifth when they put runners on first and second with no outs. The Reds called on Ethan Blakeney from the bullpen, who recorded three consecutive outs and squelched the rally.
He gave up one run, unearned, in the seventh when Luke Calveric scored on a passed ball.
His teammates call Blakeney, “Batman,” because when he joined the team as a 10-year-old, he wore Batman cleats and gloves. And it’s his favorite superhero. He says the nickname has grown on him.
Like Fihart, he often plays up with the older guys. Blakeney is 14, but often plays with the 16- and 17-year-olds.
In the seventh, he switched from a four-seam fastball to a two-seam fastball, which he says cuts a little more toward right-handed batters. He struck out two batters that inning and ended the game by inducing a ground ball to the shortstop.
Fihart and Blakeney were two of the Reds’ most productive hitters Wednesday, even though they batted eighth and ninth in the lineup. Fihart finished 3 for 3 with a run, a double and an RBI. Blakeney was 2 for 3 with a run and two RBI; No. 10 hitter Joey Capizola had two RBI. The Reds got good offense from the whole lineup, accumulating 10 hits.
Aren Miller had two hits and a run scored. Nathan Yeary had a hit and a run. The Reds could have done more damage. They left a runner on base in the third, fourth and sixth innings.
Orioles starter Hunter Fallen struggled in the first two innings, when he allowed five runs on three hits and two walks. But he regained his composure afterward and didn’t allow a run the next four innings. Calveric had two of the Orioles’ four hits.
by Eric Kolenich
GLEN ALLEN, Va. – The Richmond area felt like home this week to Evolution 3N2 pitcher Connor Hujsak, who earned a win in the championship game, homered and was named the tournament’s most valuable player Monday morning.
This time next year, Richmond will be his home. He committed to VCU on Saturday night, which is located downtown, 14 miles south of RF&P Park, where he led Evolution (Massachusetts) to a 6-2 victory over the Richmond Braves in the title game of the Pathway USBC Upperclass Championships.
“It’s been awesome,” he said of the past week.
Hujsak, a rising senior from New Hampshire, had been committed to Rutgers, but the contract of coach Joe Litterio wasn’t renewed this summer, leaving Hujsak without a college home. VCU entered the scene this week, he said, so he spent some of his time in the Richmond area touring the school’s campus. On Saturday night, he told VCU coach Shawn Stiffler he planned to become a Ram.
This weekend was his third visit to Richmond, and he says he always loved the idea of playing college baseball in the south.
“I love the heat,” he said.
He got plenty of it this weekend, pitching in low-90-degree heat Monday morning, the sun pounding down on the field from an angle that kept even the dugout from offering much shade.
Hujsak bats leadoff, and on the second pitch of the game, he hit a line-drive home run to left field off Richmond Braves’ lefty Jake Berry. There was no doubt the ball would clear the fence, leaving the field in what felt like a fraction of a second.
“I like to catch pitchers off guard and swing at the first pitch if it’s there,” Hujsak said.
Berry, a University of Virginia pledge in the Class of 2020, got roughed up in the first inning, allowing a homer, walk, double and a walk before settling down afterward. Evolution took a two-run lead in the first inning and never gave up control.
“I’m sure they were a little shell-shocked,” said Evolution coach Frank Cooney. “It felt like we got momentum and never gave it back.”
Evolution was in an enviable position with its ace on the mound in the final game. Hujsak threw only three innings Thursday, which allowed him to come back Monday with an opportunity to end the tournament.
The championship was two out of three, and Evolution won the first two, edging the Braves 7-6 on Sunday. They were down 5-0 after the first inning, but they chipped away and scored two in the seventh to win the game.
It would have been easy for his players to pack it in, Cooney said, knowing they could lose the game and save the fight for another day. Instead, they ended the tournament quickly and finished 8-0.
Andrew Eppinger homered and scored three runs for Evolution on Monday. His seventh-inning home run hit off the batter’s eye in centerfield. At first, Eppinger thought the ball was still in play, and that he had a stand-up home run – earlier in the week in the home run derby, balls off the batter’s eye weren’t considered homers. But the umpire twirled his finger, signaling a home run.
Evolution, whose offense was consistent throughout, added two more runs in the seventh to push its lead to four.
Eppinger also heads home knowing where he’ll play his college ball. The outfielder in the Class of 2020 committed to Purdue over the weekend. The Purdue coaches wanted to see more of his hitting ability, so Cooney filmed each of his at-bats and sent them to the coaching staff. They responded by giving Eppinger an offer, and Eppinger accepted.
Hujsak went the distance on the mound, throwing seven innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits. He struck out nine, walking one. He varied the speed of his delivery, sometimes pausing momentarily during his leg kick before firing.
He got the idea watching Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays, and he’s been employing the strategy all year. It took him awhile to get used to, but now it keeps batters off balance, and it worked well Monday.
Hujsak and Eppinger were just two hitters who contributed to Evolutions win – Frankie Hernandez reached base four times and scored once, Ryan Bonja had two RBI and Daniel Trzepacz had a double. The players yapped at each other in the infield and dugout each time something went their way.
“We melded together this week,” Eppinger said. “We were a lot louder.”
by Eric Kolenich
GLEN ALLEN, Va. -- Tanner Schobel led off the fifth inning with a line-drive double down the third base line. When his spot in the order came up again, the fifth inning hadn’t ended yet, six runs had scored and 10 batters had come to the plate.
In his second at-bat of the inning, he was walked with the bases loaded, scoring Lucas Bauer and giving the VA Seminoles (Mineral, VA) their 10th run of the game. The 10-run rule went into effect, the game was over, and the Seminoles had a shutout win over The Complete Player (Bowie, Md.) in the quarterfinals Saturday of the Pathway USBC Upperclass Championships at RF&P Park.
The Seminoles, the tournament’s top seed, will return to RF&P Park on Sunday at 8 a.m. to face cross-town rival Richmond Braves in the semifinals.
The Seminoles (5-0) have won three games by the mercy rule so far. Schobel was asked if this is just a team of good hitters.
“Good hitters, good everything, honestly,” he said.
After Schobel’s table-setting double to lead off the fifth, four straight batters recorded singles, and three of them brought home a run. Then Bauer hit a two-run double, putting the Seminoles ahead 9-0.
“It’s contagious,” said Schobel, a rising senior shortstop committed to Virginia Tech. “One person gets a hit, the energy goes up, and the next person does it.”
For Schobel, this summer is all about getting better. He said he’s working on shortening his swing, making it more compact and eliminating the big leg kick from his approach. Any good hits and games won are just icing on the cake.
Lead-off hitter Ty Swaim added two hits, a run and an RBI, and Tanner Thomas had two hits, two runs and an RBI.
Starting pitcher Max Moore, a rising senior committed to Mount St. Mary’s, threw all five innings, allowed three hits and struck out seven. Moore has emerged in the past year, Seminoles coach Donnie Phillips said, thanks to his willingness to put in hard work.
“He will be successful because of his work ethic,” Phillips said.
Moore is the kind of player who likes to show up and help out with the team even on days he isn’t pitching. He’s a 6-foot-3 lefty, commands a low-80s fastball and picked off a runner Saturday. His curve ball worked well for him, and he pounded the strike zone all five innings.
In the top of the fifth, Bauer made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in center field. TCP’s Jarod Mammano hit a shot to deep center field, and it looked like the ball would go over Bauer’s head. But Bauer raced toward the fence, put up his glove and caught the ball with his back toward home plate.
TCP’s Zach Saunders, who was standing at second base, took off when the ball was hit. When Bauer caught it, Saunders had no chance of tagging up. The Seminoles doubled him up at second base, even though the shortstop bobbled the catch and slowly tagged the bag.
Bauer’s catch saved a run, and the center fielder got a big hug from his coach when he returned to the dugout.
“I just put my head down and put my glove up,” Bauer said.
Wherever the Seminoles went Saturday, they went there quickly. The players sprinted on and off the field, they sprinted to first base on walks, and the catcher even sprinted to chase down foul balls that were near him.
Phillips tells his players to do everything 150 percent, because if a college coach is watching, he’s sure to notice.
“It’s the little things I’m big on,” Phillips said.
Phillips added that he’s seen coaches from almost every Division I college in the state at the Pathway tournament. This is the first year Phillips has brought a team to Pathway.
“This is a great event,” he said. “It’s recruited well.”
by Eric Kolenich
GLEN ALLEN, Va. – Last week, the CT Capitals played a tournament in New Jersey, and their bats never came alive. They won two games, lost two, put a few runs on the scoreboard, but never really generated the kind of offense they expected.
On Saturday, the Capitals (Connecticut) put nine runs on the board in the first two innings en route to an 11-5 victory over the Long Island Strong Baseball Academy in the quarterfinals of the Pathway USBC Upperclass Championships at RF&P Park. The Capitals, who own a record of 5-0 so far this week, play in the semifinals Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
And this 11-run outburst came a day after the Capitals notched eight runs against the VA Seminoles. Why the Capitals have put their bats on the ball so much better in Virginia is anyone’s guess. The pitching they’ve seen in Virginia has been at the same caliber – if not better – than what they saw in New Jersey, said Capitals coach Joe Serfass.
“It happens,” Serfass said. “There’s no reason why. We are a good-hitting team.”
Hunter Dombal got the action going in the bottom of the first when he hit a bases-clearing double. An inning later, the Capitals put six runs on the board, all with two outs. Gunnar Johnson hit his third home run of the tournament, a three-run shot to left-center, and Dombal added an RBI double.
The pitcher hung a 1-2 curveball over the plate, and Johnson hit it high and deep. The center fielder gave chase, running to the wall, leaping and putting his glove up, but the ball disappeared behind the fence. Johnson finished 1-for-2, reached on an error, was hit by a pitch and scored three times.
“Nobody can get him out,” Dombal said. “It’s just hit, home run, gone.”
After Long Island Strong recorded two outs to start the second, they surrendered a walk and error and everything unraveled. Seven straight batters reached base, and six of them scored. Long Island Strong answered with two runs in the third and three in the fifth, but never got back in the game.
“We use all three outs and stretch each inning,” said Johnson, a rising senior committed to Wofford.
Brad Sakellarides was an unstoppable force for Long Island Strong, going 3-for-3 with a home run, two doubles and three RBI. Earlier in the week, he was the tournament’s home run derby champion. In the fifth inning, the Capitals employed a shift, moving three infielders to the left side of second base.
It didn’t matter. Sakellarides homered to left-center, a towering shot that landed somewhere among the trees. But he was the only bright spot for Long Island Strong, which struggled to keep the Capitals off the base paths. Dombal finished with two doubles and five RBI, Mark Bagdasarian had two hits and two runs, as did Jarod Dalrymple.
Starting pitcher Ethan Errera went the distance for the Capitals, allowing five earned runs on 10 hits and two walks. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning when he got James Foster to fly out to center.
In the third, he let two runs cross the plate and allowed Long Island Strong to load the bases, but he escaped with no further damage when he picked off the runner at second, whipping his body 180 degrees and firing to Dalrymple, who put down a quick tag.
Errera typically serves as a closer, but he started Saturday because Serfass wanted a trustworthy arm on the mound for an elimination game. Serfass said he has a few pitching options left for the remainder of the tournament, including Dalrymple.
The way the Capitals have been hitting, he might need only so much from his pitchers.
“The whole team is coming together, offense, defense and pitching,” Dombal said.
by Eric Kolenich
GLEN ALLEN, Va. -- Even though he faced an 0-2 count, James Holladay wasn’t worried. He took a curveball, a curveball and a change up, and now he had a 3-2 count in his favor.
With the bases loaded, there was no way he’d get an off-speed pitch, he figured. It had to be a fastball.
Holladay guessed correctly and hit a bases-clearing double, securing an 11-6 victory for the Southern Maryland Senators over Zoom Baseball Academy (Philadelphia) on Friday in pool play of the Pathway USBC Upperclass Championships.
The Senators benefited from a seven-run first inning in which five runners crossed the plate before the first out was recorded. They scored their seven runs on just two hits and six walks.
But Zoom battled back, putting three runs on the scoreboard in the first and another on the third. Holladay’s double in the fourth inning ensured there would be no comeback.
“It was kind of a dagger to the heart,” said Holladay, who went 2 for 2 with four RBI and one run scored.
A rising senior, Holladay is attracting attention from Division III schools, said his coach, Scooter Luther. He called Holladay hard-working, noting that he started three games at catcher in the Pathway tournament before stepping in the box as a designated hitter against Zoom.
The Senators mustered only four hits but took advantage of 12 free passes from Zoom pitchers. Inversely, Zoom scored six runs on 11 hits and no walks.
The Senators used the speed of Isaiah Jones, both in the field and on the base paths. He made a diving catch in the third inning, and in the fourth, he took third base when the Zoom catcher tried to pick him off.
He was standing at second and took a large secondary lead when the pitch was thrown. Hoping to catch him sleeping, the catcher threw down to second, but Jones didn’t hesitate to break for third base. He slid into third before a tag could be made.
“I don’t think about it, really,” Jones said. “I just go.”
Most of his speed comes naturally, he said, though he works out with a track coach and focuses his efforts on Plyometric drills to get faster.
In the bottom of the fourth, when Zoom’s Tommy Digneo hit an off-the-wall double to left center, Jones was close to tracking down the ball. But he was a fraction of a second late, the ball careened off the wall, and so did his body. He smacked into the red wall with a loud thud and fell to the turf.
Digneo had a two-run double, and when the play was over, Jones’ teammates signaled to him, asking if he was OK. He put his thumb up above his head to signal back that he wasn’t hurt.
“My face stung a little bit,” Jones said afterward.
No. 9 hitter Kory Loveless hit an RBI double and an RBI single for the Senators, and Austin Luther threw one inning of relief to close the door on Zoom. Luther is getting some of the most recruiting attention on the team, his coach added, mostly from Division III schools.
Zoom’s Ryan Albin went 3 for 3, and Robert Buckley had two hits and two runs.
The game-time temperature was 95 degrees, and umpires rotated in and out to take breaks. But the heat wasn’t a challenge, Scooter Luther said. His players stayed hydrated, they’re in shape, and the roster is big enough – 21 players altogether – to give players a rest when they need it.
by Eric Kolenich
GLEN ALLEN, Va. -- The ball rocketed off the bat of Gunnar Johnson, landed beyond the left-field fence, near a railcar parked beside the stadium and was chased down by a group of kids. When it came off Johnson’s bat, there was no doubt it was leaving the field for a three-run home run.
Johnson’s homer, which came in the first inning, set the tone for the CT Capitals (Connecticut), who defeated the VA Seminoles 8-4 on Friday in pool play of the Pathway USBC Upperclass Championships. The Capitals went ahead 3-0 in the top of the first and never let go of the lead.
It was a fastball left over the plate, and Johnson, a rising senior committed to Wofford, turned on it. Johnson also homered in his first game of the day, and that, too, was a fastball he sent over the left-field fence. Some days he just sees the ball well, he said, and this was one of them.
“That one felt good,” Johnson said.
Typically a catcher, Johnson was behind the plate for his first game of the day and hit exclusively in the second. His coach, Joe Serfass, called him one of the top hitters in central Connecticut and a consistent presence – both offensively and defensively – on his roster. He finished 2 for 3 with four RBIs and a run scored.
“He’s a fantastic hitter,” teammate Kyle Bukowski said. “He trusts his power and his eye.”
Bukowski, the starting pitcher, went all seven innings, pushing himself through 90-degree heat, plenty of humidity and few clouds. He allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits and five walks. He recorded only one 1-2-3 inning, but he mitigated the Seminoles’ bats, getting key outs when he needed them and forcing the Seminoles to leave eight men on base.
Bukowski’s fastball isn’t a dominant one, so he leans on his off-speed, especially his slider. He found success Friday by throwing the slider early in counts and coming back to fastballs later in the count. Bukowski said he tries to figure out in any particular game what kind of strategy to employ, and on Friday, he realized the batters were looking for fastballs early in the count.
“I mix things up,” he said. “Today they were looking for fastballs, so I attacked with a lot of sliders early.”
The right-handed pitcher graduated in the spring and will attend Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, where he hopes to walk on the baseball team.
Batters are often taught as kids not to swing at early-count off-speed pitches, Johnson said, and Bukowski exploits that mentality. When batters did take a hack at it, they often swung over it as the bottom fell out of the pitch. He didn’t have many easy innings Friday, but he never relented, and he was still standing on the mound when the game ended.
“He pushed well,” Johnson said.
The Capitals scored a run in each of the first five innings and successfully dropped four bunts. Jarod Dalrymple hits third in the lineup, but he’s also one of the team’s best bunters and one of its fastest runners, so he was called on twice to bunt. He reached base both times, the first, an error, the second, he beat out for a single. Serfass acknowledged that there aren’t many summer-league teams playing small ball, but it’s an important part of his strategy.
“We like to put pressure on the defense,” Serfass said.
Mike Furgulack, the Capitals’ No. 9 hitter, went 2 for 3 with a pair of RBIs. Catcher Hunter Dombal recorded a double, a single, and RBI and a run.
After the Seminoles starter Blake Loughran was charged with eight runs (six earned) across five innings, reliever Ethan Hopp quieted the Capitals’ bats. With a delivery that varied from three-quarters to at-the-waist side arm, he retired the first five batters he faced and didn’t allow a run. Ashwin Suresh went 2 for 4 with a double, an RBI and a run for the Seminoles.
A coach from Boston College visited with Seminoles shortstop Owen DeShazo, Seminoles coach Bruce Secrest said, and a coach from Wofford visited Johnson after the game.
The Seminoles played a doubleheader Thursday and never regained their energy by Friday morning, Secrest said.
“They were gassed early,” he said. “It took a toll on us.”
Dropping its first game of the tournament to the Midland Redskins, the MGF Marshalls have been all business since. In the three games after the defeat, MGF has surrendered only a single run, including a 5-0 victory over the Ohio Warhawks to set up a rematch with Midland in the 2019 Pathway Games Omaha championship game.
“I was really proud of the way the boys showed up,” said head coach Sam Swenson. “From the first inning on, whether it was competing with two strikes to putting balls in play to competing on the mound and executing pitches, the guys were in it from the very beginning.
“We have a long history with the Warhawks. Anytime we show up on the same field, we know it’s going to be a good fight.”
After a quiet top half of the first inning, starting pitcher Bryce Robison went to work for MGF. Robison didn’t have everything going at first but still managed to retire the initial 10 batters he faced.
“I had a hard time finding my curveball early,” explained Robison. “Later in the game, I was able to find a secondary pitch and that really helped me be able to get ahead and get early outs with ground balls.”
With both pitchers looking steady on the mound, the game seemed destined for a seven-inning pitcher’s duel.
In stepped Miguel Ortiz.
Leading off the second inning, Ortiz launched a home run to left field, giving the Marshalls a much-needed early advantage.
“It was a curveball down and in,” Ortiz said. “First at-bat, I thought he would be throwing me fastballs but right away he threw me two curveballs right down the middle.
“I was confused for a second but I fouled off the next curveball and I knew what he was coming with after. It was a bit low but I still got to it.”
In two days of Pathway baseball at Werner Park, Ortiz’s solo shot stands as the only home run.
“For us to jump out there with a bomb kind of helped,” Swenson said. “It put pressure on them to make it up. It’s usually how it goes. Whoever can score first, usually has a good chance.”
An inning later, the Marshall’s continued to put its foot on the gas as TJ Clarkson tallied a two-RBI double to put MGF up 3-0.
The Warhawks looked almost certain to score in the bottom of the third inning with runners on first and third with one out. MGF flexed its defensive prowess, though, calling a brilliant pick play to end the threat and walk out of the inning unscathed.
“I knew they were going to run,” Swenson said. “We tried to set them up because Robison has a really good pick. The defense did exactly as they had been taught.
“That play right there changed the game. Any hope that they had of trying to battle back into the game got shut down right there.”
The Marshalls tacked on two more runs in the fifth inning on a throwing error from the Warhawk’s catcher, scoring Nick Vogt and J.J. Cruz to make it 5-0. With two innings to play, the game now rested on the shoulders of Robison.
As Robison’s secondary pitch took shape in the latter half of the ballgame, so did his efficiency. The BYU commit allowed just one baserunner from the fourth inning on, completing seven full shutout innings and sending the MGF Marshalls to the championship contest.
“I approached every hitter the same, especially the Warhawks,” Robison said. “They are a really good team with great coaches. I just try to block out the hitter and try to hit my spots.”
Midland got the best of MGF to begin the Pathway Games Omaha but three consecutive victories later, the Marshalls are a more confident team heading into Thursday’s championship rematch.
“I just feel like we have to play as a team, put the ball in play and hit everything hard,” said Ortiz.