By Rich Bevensee
Two weeks ago, it was the pitching staff of the Diamond Jacks Super 16U ballclub which commanded the headlines after throwing a weekend-long shutout and leading the club to a tournament championship.
This time around, with the Diamond Jacks playing their final game of the fall season, it was the offense which took center stage and closed out the campaign in the most dramatic fashion.
Mike Basile led a string of four run-scoring hits in the bottom of the sixth inning which culminated with a two-run single by Mike Novotny to give the Diamond Jacks a thrilling, come-from-behind 5-3 victory over Complete Game Colonials 18U Blue in the Fall Brawl 17/18U Wood Bat championship game on Sunday afternoon at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
“I knew it was our last game of the season, and when I got up there with runners on second and third all I’m thinking is, hit the ball hard, we have to score those runs,” said Novotny, a sophomore at Gov. Livingston. “It was the energy that did it. All game we were down but that first hit got us started and we just kept building. I was fired up and ready to go.”
Diamond Jacks lefty Joa Rivera, a Bergen Catholic sophomore, earned a no decision but was brilliant in his five innings of work, holding the Colonials scoreless and allowing just three hits and one walk while striking out five. Rivera and Hun sophomore John Rossman, who knocked in the tying run with a single to left, were named co-Most Valuable Players of the tournament.
“I was nervous at first but I knew it was going to happen,” Rivera said of the game-winning rally.
The Diamond Jacks finished the weekend 3-0 and outscored their opponents 17-6 in winning their second straight tournament title at ‘The Nation.’
Two weeks ago, Rivera and a host of Diamond Jacks arms did not allow a single run to score in five games and permitted just five hits in winning the 16U Grand Slam trophy. Diamond Jacks coach Josh Ake was hesitant to compare the two titles side by side.
“I don’t want to say it’s better than the last one,” Ake said of his team’s most recent achievement. “But when you come from behind in the last inning and see the guys rally with clutch hits, to see them fight back when they could have easily folded, to see them not give up in the last tournament of the season, it’s awesome.”
The Diamond Jacks trailed 3-0 going into the bottom of the sixth inning and had reason to be concerned. They had minimal success against Colonials righty Ryan Pulice, a senior from Indian Hills. Pulice had allowed just three hits and one walk to that point.
Basile, a sophomore from Gov. Livingston, led off the inning with a double to center, the sharpest hit of the game to that point for the Diamond Jacks. Kellen Komline ended the Diamond Jacks’ scoreless drought when he pulled a triple down the right field line to drive in Basile.
Next was Cayden Vishnesky, whose double to left scored Komline, and Rossman tied the game with a single to left.
“We started moving with the pitcher,” Rossman said. “He had a slow delivery so we all made that adjustment. Big shout out to Basile to get that train moving.”
Ake praised Rossman’s knack for coming through in the clutch. In the first game of the weekend, Rossman hit a bases-loaded triple to help the Diamond Jacks overcome a 3-1 deficit against Prospects Baseball Red in an eventual 4-3 win.
“And today he gets another clutch hit,” Ake said. “If you saw him from start to finish, his average kept climbing. He’s always getting after it, works his butt off, so as a coach it’s awesome to see a kid like that come through and all the work pay off.”
Ake said Rossman is invaluable to the team because of his work ethic and his willingness to be the team’s Swiss Army knife – he plays every position except catcher and first base. Rossman played right field and second base this weekend.
Joa Rivera and John Rossman of DJacks Super 16U were named co-MVPs of the 18U Fall Brawl.
“I love being able to play anywhere,” Rossman said. “It’s a good tool to have, and it’s important for a team to have. It gets you on the field more, gives you the opportunity to play because you can play anywhere. It’s a good feeling.”
Novotny, whose one-out single up the middle on an 0-2 count broke the tie, driving in Rossman and Jake Hornick, drew from prior experience to prepare himself for the pressure at bat.
“We were in Alabama this summer and the bases were loaded in a heated game against a team from Virginia,” Novotny said. “It was a back-and-forth game and I had the go-ahead hit in the top of the seventh. So I think I was more ready for that moment today. I’d already been there so I just had to control myself and be there for my team.”
Hornick came on in relief of Rivera in the top of the sixth and immediately got two outs before the Colonials rallied for three runs. Jake Lulla scored from third on a pickoff error, Joe DeLuca singled through the left side to drive in a run, and Andrew Streim scored on a wild pitch for a 3-0 lead.
Alex Famolari, a sophomore from North Hunterdon, relieved Hornick and got a strikeout to end the inning. After the Diamond Jacks rallied for five runs in the bottom of the inning, Famolari worked a scoreless seventh to cement the title.
“Once we went through the lineup for that second time, the guys had seen him (Pulice) already,” Ake said. “They knew his tendencies and they made a decision finally that they were going to come out and play. They decided they didn’t want to lose today. When they want to play well, this team can play with anyone in the country.”
The Diamond Jacks would not have been in striking distance of Complete Game were it not for Rivera, who faced just four batters over the minimum through five innings while matching zeroes with Pulice.
“I threw the curveball a lot, that’s usually my best pitch,” Rivera said. “With my fastball and curve there’s a big speed difference, and mixing those two got a lot of swings and misses.”
Rivera’s most difficult test came when he allowed back-to-back singles by Nick Vitelli and L.J. Renshaw to open the fourth inning. Rivera responded with two strikeouts and a groundout to end the danger.
“Joa threw an unbelievable game,” Ake said. “He commanded the zone, threw every pitch for a strike and he competed. That’s all you can ask from a pitcher. Sometimes you’re gonna have your best stuff and sometimes you’re not, but as long as you compete you always give yourself a chance. He had his stuff going, and he competed, and when you have that going it’s awesome.”
It was a strong all-around tournament for the Diamond Jacks program. The Diamond Jacks’ Super 18U and Super 17U squads opted out of the playoffs after performing well in pool play. The Super 17U squad finished pool play 3-0 and outscored their opponents 20-7. Super 18U went 2-1 and outscored their opponents 22-7.