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.”