By Sean Reilly
When the Flores Baseball Braves 13U Red opened play at the Diamond Nation 13U Easter Extravaganza on Friday, Chris Arias was hitting 10th in batting order.
Fast forward to the championship game on Saturday night. After hitting well during a three-game sweep of its pool games followed by another nice showing in its semifinal victory, Arias had moved up to the sixth position in the lineup for the title matchup against the Tri-State Arsenal.
Arias produced a single in three at-bats and was selected the tournament’s Most Valuable Player by his coaches after the FB Braves gained a 3-1 victory over the Arsenal in Flemington.
It wasn’t one particular play that earned Arias the honor. Instead, it was a reward for his persistence and improvement for the Braves, who are now 9-0 this spring at ‘The Nation.’ The Fairfield-based team won all four of its games while capturing the Battle At The Turf Tournament title on March 26. The Braves have outscored their nine Diamond Nation opponents, 81-10, including a 53-6 margin this weekend.
“He started 10th, and he’s moved up,” coach A.J. Flores said. “He kept earning it with great at-bats.”
“It’s had a lot to do with confidence,” said Arias about Flores’ improvement. “It’s a mental game, so I had to adjust that, and it has helped.”
There were other players who were also worthy of MVP consideration for the Braves. Two were perhaps most notable.
Jandiel Ortiz received the award at the prior tournament. This time, he capped a fine weekend by getting the starting pitching assignment in the final, and allowed one run on four hits over six innings against a stacked Arsenal lineup. He struck out nine, including five looking, against three walks. And at the plate, he doubled and walked twice as the No. 2 batter.
Catcher Jake Small, who hit third, threw out three runners trying to steal and made a solo play at the plate to tag a runner trying to score on a pitch that got away. He was also the batter when two Arsenal wild pitches scored both the go-ahead and insurance runs with one out in the third inning.
The Arsenal, which came into the final with a 4-0 record and 43-6 run differential, were also ready to compete in the championship matchup that put a prime focus on pitching depth. Since this was a two-day tournament because of the Easter holiday, the finalists were both playing three games on the final day.
Arsenal scored their lone run in the top of the first. Sean Piperi led off with a first-pitch single to center field and stole second. Alex Fiore then tripled to the gap in right center. But Ortiz regrouped with two strikeouts, along with Small’s nimble play at the plate to tag the runner who tried to score.
The Braves got the run back in the bottom of the first. Lucas Rocha led off with a single to left and stole second before Ortiz coaxed a full-count base on balls. After a fly out and then a walk to David Rojas, the run scored when Deven Aponte beat out a ground ball to shortstop that forced out the trail runner at second.
The Braves stopped another Arsenal threat in the second inning, which began with singles by Gavin Bowman and Nick Pignatelli. A double steal was attempted, but Small threw out the lead runner at third. Ortiz then struck out the next two hitters, both looking.
The Braves scored their other runs in the third. Rocha, another player who had a solid weekend, got things started with his second hit of the game, a one-out single to left field. Ortiz then doubled to right field, to put two in scoring position for Small. Both wound up scoring on wild pitches during his at-bat for a 3-1 lead. He ultimately walked on a full count before the next two batters struck out.
Arsenal had one final chance in the seventh, which started with a walk to Andrew DiMarsico. At that point, Bobby Cross relieved Ortiz for the Braves. He promptly got the next hitter to ground into a 1-6-3 double play, and the next batter grounded out to second to clinch another piece of Diamond Nation hardware for the Flores Baseball program, which has had a very successful spring spread across several age groups at the complex.
“I like it here,” noted Arias. “I like the games, the competition against good teams and the atmosphere.”