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.”