That’s Riley Erbis about to launch an inside the park grand slam home run for Empire Youth.
By Rich Bevensee
Even after pitching two shutout innings, Nat Necci didn’t mind stepping aside so a teammate could get some work done inside the circle.
And she especially didn’t mind being given the ball again for a chance to close the door.
Necci returned to pitch a perfect fourth inning and her Empire Youth Athletics softball team rode a Riley Erbis grand slam to an 8-2, four-inning pool play victory over New Jersey Pride 12U-Keith in the Finch’s Aces Fall Invitational on Saturday morning at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
Necci blanked the Pride for three innings and allowed one hit and one walk with one strikeout.
“I haven’t pitched so well the last couple times,” Necci said. “I felt I was off because we hadn’t practiced in a while. This time I felt more ready. I knew I had it today when I was striking people out and getting back into my groove.”
The Empire squad, which formed in August, has come together nicely despite the lack of time together. It won a tournament championship three weeks ago in Long Island, and has finished second two other times in a span of 17 games.
Empire (2-1) earned the seventh seed for the 18-team playoff on Sunday and was set to face 10th-seeded Empire State Huskies-Hotle (1-1-1) on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. The championship game is scheduled for 3:40 p.m.
Empire defeated Sandlot 12U, 6-2, and bowed to Central Jersey Lightning 12U, 7-0.
Erbis’ inside-the-park grand slam home run capped a five-run first inning for Empire. Sam Espinal led off with a walk, stole second and third and scored on a wild pitch. Grace Moore singled and Ella Balbo and Sam Cowan both walked to load the bases before Erbis launched a bases-clearing bomb to left.
“When Riley gets a hold of one she gives it a ride for sure,” Empire coach Ben Necci said.
“When I was running I was thinking don’t miss the base,” said Erbis, who recorded her second career homer and her first since last fall. “I was very surprised to make it around.”
NJ Pride jumped back into the game in the top of the third inning with a pair of runs against Grace Moone, who stranded two runners with a strikeout to end the inning.
Empire’s Sophia Elkhatib collides with NJ Pride catcher Giovanna Rossiter in the first inning. That’s Riley Erbis in the background headed home on her grand slam.
Marianna Iannitelli notched an RBI groundout and Karli Heinemann scored from third on an infield throwing error as NJ Pride climbed to within 5-2.
Necci, who utilized a fastball, a two-seamer and changeup, re-entered the circle for Empire and pitched a 1-2-3 fourth, and her team padded its lead with three unearned runs in the bottom of the inning.
“Just trying to get my pitchers some work, trying to get them some innings,” Ben Necci said of switching pitchers. “Natalie pitched phenomenal. She pitched a great game. She was in the zone.”
In the Empire half of the fourth, Avery Smar had an RBI single, pinch hitter Penny Pena added an RBI groundout, and Smar scored on that play on an infield error for the final score.
Erin Costa Fernandes pitched well in relief for NJ Pride, allowing three unearned runs on one hit and one walk with four strikeouts in 3⅔ innings. Noelle Freyer was the lone NJ Pride batter to record a base hit.
NJ Pride turned things around Saturday after the loss to Empire. They defeated Jersey Girls 12U, 8-4, and Rhode Island Thunder Gold 12U, 8-2, to finish the day 2-1 and enter the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. NJ Pride was set to face No. 9 seed Connecticut Jades (1-1-1) at 11 a.m.