By Sean Reilly
Adrian Mercado, the FB Braves 11U White catcher, was chasing a bases-loaded wild pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning when he heard a commotion behind him.
“The ball bounced back from the net, I grabbed it, and then I heard them yell ‘Running,’” he said.
At that point, he knew the lead Bucks County Generals runner was trying to score. If safe, it would tie the game. If out, the Braves would close out a very memorable victory.
“I turned and started running toward the plate, and I tagged him out,” he said.
The alert play by Mercado gave the FB Braves a 9-8 win and the championship of the Diamond Nation 11U Father’s Day Classic on Sunday night in Flemington.
The game was also among the most dramatic of any of the hundreds of contests played among all age groups this spring at ‘The Nation.’
The FB Braves scored a run in the top of the sixth to force an extra inning, which under the international tiebreaker format, begins with one out and the bases loaded.
In the top of the seventh, the FB Braves had their leadoff man bunt, but the Generals turned it into a 1-2-3 double play after pitcher Tanner Chapman made the initial fielding play, and throw, to the plate.
That gave the Generals an enormous advantage heading into the bottom of the inning, but their first batter hit a hard grounder to Braves shortstop Aiden Krauss.
Krauss, who had made a number of sharp defensive plays prior, fielded the ball and turned it into an impressive 6-4-3 double play, with second baseman Alex Sanchez making the crucial throw to first baseman Nico Contreras, to get the third out and send the game to a second extra inning, the eighth.
The FB Braves then started the eighth with an RBI walk to Sanchez followed by a two-run single past third base by Arjun Gupta. The next two batters struck out, but the Braves had a three-run lead to work with in the bottom of the inning.
The Generals’ leadoff batter hit a grounder to Contreras in front of first base and near the foul line. He threw to Mercado at home for a force out.
With the bases still loaded and two out, Logan Cruz walked on four pitches to get the Generals within 9-7. Jason Zweibel then hit an infield single between third and shortstop that got his team within a run.
And then, with the bases still loaded and no wiggle room on either side, came the wild pitch.
The Generals had two runs score on wild pitches earlier in the game, but also had another runner erased trying to score on a similar unassisted play by Mercado.
At that point, it was not only the eighth inning, but also the third of the Braves’ four weekend games played on Field 2 at the complex. Mercado was thus familiar with the surroundings, including the different ways balls bounce off the turf, padding and net.
“It does different things, and I adjusted to it,” he said. “I also knew to hold onto it instead of throwing to the pitcher. I saw him coming, and thought ‘Race there, and see who is fastest.’”
Mercado got there first, applied the tag and the Braves had their first Diamond Nation championship, putting them in the same company as several other teams from the Fairfield organization who’ve won in various age groups this spring in Flemington.
Nick Marino, who did a solid relief pitching job upon entering with one out in the fourth inning, was named tournament MVP.
“I had a lot of pressure on me, but just tried to throw strikes,” he said.
“The first bases loaded situation was very stressful. The play by Aiden was unbelievable,” Marino said. “It was a very good play. The second time, I didn’t have as much pressure on me, so I just tried to throw strikes. I knew we had a defense that could field the ball.”
The score got to 9-8, and then Mercado made the play that determined the championship.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Marino said. “He’s been busting it behind the plate and doing really well all season.”
Eli Balbi went 2-for-3 with a double, two runs and the RBI ground out with one out in the sixth that tied it for the Braves at 6-6.