By Rich Bevensee
Diamond Jacks coach Chris Brown saw this coming.
All week his Diamond Jacks 11U Gold players worked harder than ever in practice, paying attention to detail and pairing that work ethic with increased intensity. Brown thought, just maybe, this is a sign the DJacks are headed for big things.
That terrific week-long effort played out this weekend at Diamond Nation in Flemington. After a wakeup call in their first game when they gave up double-digit runs, the Diamond Jacks scored in double figures three times and claimed their first tournament championship of the spring.
Mason Matis drove in two runs and contributed key hits throughout the weekend to earn the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, Nicky Stangota pitched a complete-game four-hitter, and the DJacks 11U squad roughed up the KUBA Knights 11-3 in the Home Run Classic finale on Sunday evening.
“This is so much fun,” Stangota said. “I’ve won tournaments before, but not like this.”
“Each week we kept getting better and better, getting a little more comfortable,” Brown said. “We had a great week of practice and you can tell. They were very focused, energetic, and they had a heightened awareness as far as knowing what to do with the baseball when it’s hit to them and playing catch. And that’s all baseball is – playing catch.”
The Diamond Jacks rolled to the title with a three-pack of offensive blowouts, but not before a small hiccup in the form of a 12-6 loss to the Woodstown Heat. The DJacks rocked 3Up3 Down Baseball and Hustle Baseball Academy by identical 11-5 scores, then woke up for seven late runs for a 7-3 victory over the Mount Olive Marauders.
Matis, who went 2-for-3 in the final, figured prominently in the first two DJacks rallies. He and Brett Myers drove in runs with groundouts in the top of the first inning for a 2-0 lead. In the third inning, Myers drilled an RBI double and Matis added an RBI single as the DJacks’ lead grew to 5-1.
“I didn’t start out great this season but I got some more lessons and I started hitting a lot better,” Matis said. “In the beginning of the spring I was stepping out, and from then to now my footwork has been a lot better. I also worked on my two-strike approach and now I try to swing a lot earlier.”
Unlike their semifinal against Mount Olive when the DJacks bats were silent until the fourth inning, the hosts scored in every inning against KUBA and earned a mercy-rule victory by the fifth.
In the top of the fourth inning, Max Lopez scored on a Dylan Rymar fielder’s choice, and Lee Zarnas, who showed off his terrific arm at shortstop, scored on a wild pitch for a 7-1 Diamond Jacks lead.
The DJacks sent all 11 batters to the plate to produce a four-run fifth inning. Lopez scored on a wild pitch, Zarnas slapped a two-run single through the middle and Casey Perez added an RBI single to left.
And the beneficiary of all this offense was Stangota, whose mixture of fastballs, changeups and knuckleballs – yes, he throws an effective knuckler – allowed him to face just four batters over the minimum. He didn’t allow a single walk and he struck out seven.
“I think different pitch types mixed them up,” Stangota said. “I was throwing curveballs and knuckleballs. My dad (Carmen Stangota) taught me the knuckleball. I knew my team would play good defense and get some hits.”
The Knights were so stymied by Stangota that leadoff man Joe Johnson (2- for-2 with a double and a run scored) was the only KUBA player to record a hit until the fifth inning.
Dhilan Chopra and Owen Iversen opened the bottom of the fifth with back-to-back singles, Peter Rettig drove in Chopra with a groundout, and Iversen never stopped running from second on the play and he beat the throw from first.
“Nicky was unbelievable,” Brown said. “Everything was working. He was commanding both sides of the zone, and he was throwing his fastball, his change, his knuckleball. He definitely kept them off balance. If he can change speeds he can definitely pitch and go deep into the game.”
The semifinal victory over Mount Olive was a confidence-boosting comeback win for the DJacks. The game was scoreless until the fourth inning when the Marauders scored twice.
The DJacks responded with some big shots in the next two innings. Colin Casey and Zarnas both ripped two-run doubles in the bottom of the fourth for a 4-2 lead. Lopez fueled the DJacks’ three-run fifth with a two-run, grounds rule double, a prodigious blast which bounced over the center field fence.
Kennett Unionville Baseball Association (KUBA) is based in Kennett Square, in the West Chester area of Pennsylvania. It reached the 11U final as the top seed by beating Locked In Baseball Expos 11U Blue 6-3, tying Hustle Baseball Academy 4-4, and edging the Woodstown Heat 6-4.
Johnson, KUBA’s third baseman, turned in one of two web gems for the visitors from the Keystone State. In the third inning he stabbed a hot grounder down the left field line off Matis’ bat and threw to second for a force out. Iversen made a nice pick play at second to scoop a Rymar grounder and get the out at first.