By Sean Reilly
Selah Lugo tried not to get too anxious when she came to the plate for what was likely to be the final time during a four-game day on Sunday at Diamond Nation.
Her Empire State Huskies Hotle team was locked into a tie situation with the Toms River Surf in the championship of the 12U Jennie Finch Spring Invitational Pink Division Tournament on Sunday afternoon.
Seven innings weren’t enough to settle the well-played contest that featured exceptional pitching and defense, including four double plays, two turned by each team.
The extra inning meant the game would go to the international tiebreaker format, with the frame starting with the bases loaded and one out.
Lugo, the No. 3 batter in the lineup, was the leadoff hitter. And given the situation, the Surf played their infielders in.
“I was thinking that I just had to get a hit,” she said. “Even if it was just a single, just to get on base. I saw that the infield was in. I knew the pitch was going to be right down the middle and I just had to take a chance and swing at it.”
Lugo hit a very hard grounder past the drawn-in infield near shortstop. The left fielder made a dive toward the fast-moving ball, but it got past her and rolled to the fence. The result was an inside-the-park grand slam that led to a 6-3 victory and the Pink championship in Flemington.
“She had a great day,” Huskies coach Keith Hotle said of Lugo, who was selected tournament MVP. “She was 100 percent a perfect person to have up in that spot. On the day, she had a couple of outstanding shoelace catches coming from the outfield, she came through with a couple of really big hits, a couple of good bunts, and she just all-around fundamentally played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. She was lights out.”
The Empire State Huskies Hotle finished the weekend with a 6-1 record and 45-17 run differential. The only 12U team to have a better record among the 40 competitors was its sister team, the Empire State Huskies Porcelli, which went 7-0 in winning the White Division championship.
The big hit by Lugo broke a 2-2 tie and made a winner out of pitcher Siena Giandalone, who pitched a complete game and allowed five hits, with eight strikeouts and three walks, all while coming off a back injury which had sidelined her for a couple of weeks leading into the tournament. She also pitched a portion of one of the earlier games on Sunday.
“I hadn’t pitched in a while, so I had to really work on my mechanics,” she said. “I just had to trust myself.”
“She’s a real trooper,” Hotle said. “She’s very stone cold. Just straight-faced and goes right after the hitter. Nothing seems to faze her, whether it’s bases loaded or not. She doesn’t care. She just goes out and does her job.”
The Surf, which had a 5-1 showing over the weekend, took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Julia Sherman led off with a full-count walk, stole second and then scored when Julie Velardi dropped a two-out single into shallow center field.
The Huskies tied it in the second inning. Julie Gieras led off and was safe on an error. She then scored on Meghan Abbate’s two-out single past the left side of the infield.
The Huskies, from Westchester County, went ahead in the fourth inning. Jenna Taylor led off and walked, was bunted to second and scored on a single by Giandalone.
The Surf tied it in the bottom of the seventh. Lilly Bosson led off with a single to third base. The next hitter was Maya Ballaccomo, the No. 3 batter in the lineup. Ballaccomo had a phenomenal game behind the plate, highlighted by an outstretched catch of a foul ball against the fence to the left of the batter’s box. She turned that into a double play by rifling a throw to first base after the leadoff batter had reached in the third inning.
Ballaccomo launched a double to the gap in left-center that scored Bosson for a 2-2 tie. But Giandalone bore down, and retired the next three batters on a strikeout, ground out and strike out.
That sent the game to extra innings, which accomplished two things for the Huskies. First, the four runs in its half broke the tie. Then, in the bottom of the inning, the lead allowed it to align its defense more conservatively and also take pressure off of Giandalone inside the pitching circle.
“It made a difference,” she said. “It made it easier, but not too easy.”
The first batter for the Surf hit a grounder to Giandalone. She traded a run for an out by tossing the ball to first base for the second out under the tiebreaker format. She then ended the game by striking out the final batter.
“It feels really good to win this,” she said. “There were a lot of good teams and good competition.”
“This game was definitely a barn burner,” said Hotle. “It was a team effort, all of our girls played the field tremendously. They got the bat on the ball, they got bunts down, they got some big hits and made some awesome defensive plays. That’s what we pride ourselves on, being fundamentally sound.”