By Sean Reilly
Max Cruz had visited Diamond Nation before, but only as a spectator to watch his older brother compete.
This weekend, he got to make his debut as a player, competing for the EEP Bandits in the 9U Summer Finale Tournament in Flemington.
Not only did he gain a bunch of pleasant memories, he also left “The Nation” with a first-place medal around his neck and a commemorative Victus bat in his hands after being selected tournament MVP.
Cruz, the No. 2 batter in the lineup, capped an exceptional weekend by hitting a double, walking twice and scoring two runs as the Brooklyn team rallied to a 12-10 victory over Elite Baseball on Sunday afternoon.
“This feels really good, having fun at Diamond Nation,” Cruz said. “I’ve been here a few times because I was watching my brother and now I got to have fun playing myself.”
The EEP Bandits went into the final with a 2-0 record that included a 14-6 win over Elite Baseball in the round-robin pool play on Saturday.
But in the back-and-forth championship game, Elite Baseball, out of Bucks County, Pa., took a 9-8 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning.
The Bandits started that frame with consecutive walks to Brandon Nouel (replaced by courtesy runner Anthony Coffee) and Aaron Lopez. But the next two batters struck out.
Dylan Ditusa, who supplied a two-out inside-the-park grand slam for a 5-4 lead in the second inning, hit a single to right field. Coffee was safe with the tying run when the catcher couldn’t hold on to the ball after a close play at the plate. The catcher then made a throw to first base, but it went down the line and allowed Lopez to score for a 10-9 lead, with Ditusa reaching third.
Nikko Eleftarakis then walked and stole second base, and both runners scored when A.J. Kessler tripled. Kessler was thrown out at the plate trying for a home run, but the big hit gave the Bandits a 12-9 lead heading into the sixth inning.
Elite Baseball started the sixth with a single to center field by Austin Kirk, before Joey Ringgold walked on a full count. Cam Branche then singled to shallow center to load the bases with nobody out.
Reliever Daniel Coffee struck out the next batter swinging on a full count, and Chase Roberts – whose prior at-bat was a three-run inside-the-park home run that gave Elite Baseball a 9-5 lead in the fourth – was retired on a sacrifice fly to right field.
With the tying runs on first and second, Coffee got the next batter to ground out to second to end the game, setting off a celebration among the Bandits and their fans.
“The most important thing is to have fun,” EEP Bandits Coach Skip Gordon said. “No matter how tough the situation is, just remember that it’s a game. Through all the mistakes, major leaguers make mistakes, so I just try to keep my kids focused, playing hard and just having fun. There were ups and downs in the game, and even when we were down, we were always cheering. It was a great experience here this weekend for me and the boys, it was amazing playing on beautiful fields and against good teams.”
As for Cruz, some extra work of late paid off with the championship and MVP recognition.
“The work he’s put in the last month, with personal workouts and team workouts, and hasn’t he missed a practice…he came out and showed it today,” Gordon said. “I think he batted almost .800 in the tournament. He earned it with hard work.
“We’ve had practices at the cages and I went there every single time and kept on working hard,”
Cruz said. “It feels really good to win.”
Jay Jay Rodriguez was 2-for-3 with one RBI for the Bandits. Kirk was 2-for-2 with a walk and three runs, while Branche had two singles, a walk, two runs and one RBI for Elite Baseball.