Fuerbacher’s squeeze bunt wins 17/18U title for Monmouth Liberty

By DN WRITING STAFF | September 5, 2023

By Rich Bevensee

With temperatures climbing into the 90s and even higher on the artificial turf, it was time for a quick end to a thrilling championship game. At least that’s how Monmouth Liberty coach Mark Russo saw it. 

So in the bottom of the seventh inning with the bases loaded and one out per the California Rule, and no time left on the game clock, Russo called for Justin Fuerbacher to bunt.

Fuerbacher, who had not even attempted a single bunt all summer, delivered as if he were an expert instructor at a bunting clinic. He pushed his second pitch perfectly down the first base line while Dylan Vowteras streaked home from third, and Monmouth escaped with a 7-6 victory over Tri-State Arsenal in the 17/18U Labor Day Blast Wood Bat championship game on a steamy Monday afternoon at Diamond Nation in Flemington.

“I love big moments and I love being here,” said Fuerbacher, a junior at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft. “To be called upon like that, I felt honored to do it. I perform my best when I’m calm, cool, and collected. You can’t let nerves get in the way. If they do it’s going to affect how I play so you just go up there and do your job and that’s what I did.”

Russo said the fact that Fuerbacher had not bunted before Monday never entered his mind when it came to orchestrating a play which would bring home the title.

“We thought about letting him hit, kind of punch something through, but we had confidence in him with the squeeze,” Russo said. “We felt it was the right situation for him with the runner we had on third (Vowteras) to try to pull it off.

“Justin’s usually our four hitter. He was down in the lineup today (hitting seventh), so he’s not a guy we usually squeeze. He’s just a great athlete and someone you can count on in that spot.”

Will Fahey, who pitched 2⅔ innings of relief in the championship game, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. 

Fahey also pitched two innings of relief on Friday in a 2-2 tie against Lehigh Valley Baseball Academy, and Russo said he provided an offensive spark at the top of the lineup all weekend.

“My goal is just to get on base,” Fahey said. “I don’t care if it’s a hit or an error, and I did that all weekend. I started the game with a run almost every game, the team picked up on that energy and we kept it going all tournament.”

Fahey, a junior at Christian Brothers, got two strikeouts looking in the top of the seventh inning before turning the game over to Fuerbacher. 

“I was going nuts coming off the mound, firing everyone up,” Fahey said. “I wanted to win so bad.”

Monmouth Liberty, which entered the four-team playoff as the top seed after going 3-0-1, outscored its opponents 45-12 to close out the weekend. The Liberty defeated fourth-seeded PPH Mafia Blue, 10-3, in the semifinals. 

Tri-State Arsenal advanced to the final in a more dramatic style, beating the West Chester Dragons, 3-1, in the other semi. Leading 1-0 in the top of the seventh, Arsenal scored twice on an error and an Austin Wright sacrifice fly. 

In the bottom of the seventh, Arsenal righty Jack Redmond was within an out of pitching a no-hitter but surrendered a single and then an RBI double. That runner was thrown out at third to end the game.

Arsenal coach Bob Huzzy said he expected Monmouth may try a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the seventh of the final after he saw his team come up empty in the top of the inning.

“We talked about the possibility of a squeeze play,” Huzzy said. “We told them if you see hands you have to get the ball up in the strike zone. Hey, their batter did a good job of getting that bunt down.”

Russo said Fuerbacher didn’t flinch when he directed his first baseman to bunt. And that’s the reaction he wanted to see.

Will Fahey of Monmouth Liberty was named 17/18 Labor Day Blast MVP.

“Before the runners even went out there, coach called me over and said, ‘Justin, first pitch you’re going to take. Second pitch is a suicide squeeze. Square on the bunt, get it down, get it in play. They need two outs to get us out and they can only get one.’

“I love being in that situation. I don’t want to be selfish and play hero ball, but if that’s the situation I’m placed in, I’ll do that when called upon. And if another moment comes up like that I definitely won’t even think twice about it.”

Both teams showed a particularly high level of resolve through the first five innings. Arsenal built a 3-0 lead in the third and fourth innings, only to watch Liberty bat around in the bottom of the fourth and score six runs on four hits and three walks for a 6-3 lead.

The big at bat in that inning came from Vowteras, who came up with the bases loaded and blasted the first pitch he saw into left center for a two-run double. That shot opened the floodgates.

Liberty starting pitcher Jack Dufficy walked with the bases loaded, Vowteras scored on a wild pitch, Nico Amecangelo scored on a fielder’s choice and Jax Buatez added an RBI single.

That very long rally on some very hot turf did not deter Arsenal.

“It’s tough losing a three-run lead,” Huzzy said, “but for them to put six runs on the board right away, one of two things can happen. We can either have resolve and fight, or just crap the bed and let them take over. I’m proud of these guys for what they did.”

What Arsenal did was rally to tie the game in its very next at bat. Leadoff hitter Ethan Tolbert and Ethan Fantel both blasted RBI triples, and Brady Wendel added an RBI single to tie the game at 6-6.

“I give credit to the guys. They’ve worked hard and been in that spot before,” Russo said. “I told them that they’ve battled back before so reset and keep playing the game.”

Huzzy may not have been surprised to see a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the seventh because his team tried it in the top of the sixth. A high and outside pitch eluded the batter and Colin Menafra, charging in from third, was a dead duck at home plate.

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