Defense rules the day in Super 14U California tiebreaker win

By DN WRITING STAFF | June 18, 2024

By Rich Bevensee

This particular championship game featured a frantic, late-game comeback, a textbook outfield relay for a home plate putout, and extra-inning drama featuring the always unpredictable California Tie-Breaker format.

Some might say it was Diamond Nation’s way of honoring all the dads in attendance – a tremendous championship game on Father’s Day.

It was defense which sealed the deal for Diamond Jacks Super 14U.

James Fenton snagged a line drive at third for the second out and Connor Bressler made a sliding catch in center field to end the game and secure an 8-6 victory over West Chester Dragons NL in the 14U Father’s Day Classic title game on Sunday afternoon at ‘The Nation’ in Flemington.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever won an extra-inning game like that, and I know I’ve never done one with the California rule in a championship game, but I’ll tell you what – that was awesome,” veteran Diamond Jacks coach Travis Anderson said.

The Diamond Jacks Super 14U ballclub, 28-2 this spring at ‘The Nation,’ has now appeared in six DN tournament finals since the start of spring and won four of them.

“I was pretty nervous at the start but then, that’s baseball,” said Bressler, who shared Most Valuable Player honors with teammate Michael Donahue. “It’s a great feeling. Of all the tournaments we’ve won, it’s definitely the best kind of championship – a great team win where we faced great pitching, and doing that with the California rule was amazing.”

Mateo Liloia was the early headline grabber for the Diamond Jacks. He allowed one hit over four shutout innings while protecting a 6-0 lead.

But the Dragons scrambled to tie the game by scoring six runs over the next two innings. The drama began in the bottom of the sixth with the Dragons trailing 6-3 and the game clock quickly expiring.

“We talk about it and preach about it all the time – grind out the at bats,” Dragons coach John Rozich said. “We just needed a couple of big hits. Those first four innings we didn’t get a big hit and had all zeroes up there. So the last two innings we got a couple of big hits and put some pressure on them.”

The 1-hour, 50-minute game clock was under two minutes when the Dragons’ Aidan Capobianco came to the plate with one out and the tying runs on base. This would be the Dragons’ final at bat – probably.

Evan DeBellis scored on a wild pitch to Capobianco, and Christian Hall scored on a mishandled Tyler Homick grounder, bringing the Dragons within a run.

With two outs, Owen Murphy very nearly lifted the Dragons to a walk-off victory. He blasted a two-strike double to right field which pushed Capobianco across with the tying run.

As Homick rounded third, Diamond Jacks right fielder Owen Ehrenkranz gathered the ball in the right field corner, turned and threw to second baseman Gabe Miller standing in shallow right. Miller fired a precise two-hopper to catcher Antonio Padilla to nail a head-first sliding Homick at the plate and cut down the potential winning run.

“At this level I don’t know if you’re going to see a better relay than the one down the right field line,” Anderson said. “Miller threw a two-hopper to Padilla to get the run at the plate. At that moment it’s huge.”

And Rozich said, given a second chance, he’d send Homick again.

“Without question, I would send that runner (Homick) 10 times out of 10, because you never know in baseball,” Rozich said.

With the game clock expired, the California tie-breaker rule was in effect for the seventh inning. Each team begins each half inning with the bases loaded and one out.

“It’s exciting,” Donahue said. “It was like my heart was beating out of my chest.”

In the Diamond Jacks’ half of the seventh, Miller coerced a bases-loaded walk and Donahue hit into a fielder’s choice to drive in another run. Padilla was thrown out at the plate by first baseman Casen Rozich after the fielder’s choice, so the Diamond Jacks carried a still precarious 8-6 lead into the bottom of the inning.

Michael Donahue and Connor Bressler of Diamond Jacks Super 14U, with their fathers Vincent Donahue and Chris Bressler, were named co-MVPs of the 14U Father’s Day Classic.

The Dragons never mounted a threat. Fenton made a nice stab of Noah MacNeal line drive, and Bressler made a diving catch in center of a soft liner by Sameer Dhillon to end the game.

Liloia’s final line was three runs allowed over 4⅓ innings as he surrendered three hits and five walks. He struck out four. Nick McCabe pitched the final 2⅔ innings and yielded three runs (two earned) on two hits and two walks, striking out two.

For the Diamond Jacks, Luca Catanzarite was 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored and Padilla had an RBI double.

For the Dragons, Owen Murphy yielded four runs on five hits and two walks and struck out two over the first three innings. Homick allowed four runs on three hits and four walks while striking out two.

Murphy, the only Dragon with multiple hits, went 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles and an RBI.

Diamond Jacks’ No. 3 hitter Bressler, who went 2-for-3 with a two-run triple and an RBI groundout, said his hitting in the championship game was the direct result of some changes to his swing with help from Diamond Jacks instructor Walt Cleary.

“In the beginning of the season I was pretty rough – three weeks of just not hitting at all,” Bressler said. “But the last four or five tournaments I’ve felt amazing. I changed a lot of stuff with Coach Walt. I went shorter with the bat, and I try to limit as much movement as possible. At a PG tournament in Staten Island, I had one of the best tournaments of my life.

“I feel great right now. It’s been awesome. I’m really proud of myself that I made the adjustment.”

Anderson said, “Connor swung it well all weekend, he played great defense in the outfield, stole big big bases. It was fun to watch him play this weekend.”

Anderson praised Donahue for his pitching throughout the weekend.

“Donnie’s been a team guy all year,” Anderson said. “He gives us a lot of energy. He threw the ball well all weekend, and I want guys who threw the ball well all weekend to get recognized, not just because you threw in the championship game.”

“The first game I felt going into it, ‘Just throw. Just be me.’ I did that in the second game as well, and it turned out well,” Donahue said. “I just threw strikes, let the defense do their thing, and one thing led to another.”

The Diamond Jacks built their 6-0 lead slowly and surely with several hitters chipping in. Bressler had a two-run triple and Matt Filiaci added an RBI groundout in the first inning for a 3-0 lead.

Bressler struck again in the third, padding his team’s lead with a run-scoring groundout. Padilla slugged an RBI double in the fourth, and Owen Rivenbark had an RBI single in the fifth for the 6-0 lead.

Rivenbark was celebrating his return to the lineup this weekend after sitting out several weeks with a growth plate fracture in his right wrist.

Fenton, who made one of those key plays in the bottom of the seventh, came up big in the semifinals as well. He pitched five shutout innings and allowed one hit and struck out 11 in the Diamond Jacks’ 8-0 win over the Locked In Baseball Expos.

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