Brandon Persons laid down a perfect RBI squeeze bunt to get the scoring started for Hudson Valley.
By Rich Bevensee
Brandon Tarasenko knows he does not possess an intimidating physique or a blazing fastball. What he does know is that if he gets the ball over the plate, his defense has his back.
Sometimes that’s all a pitcher needs. And after a year and a half of never setting foot on a pitcher’s mound, that approach worked for Tarasenko.
With Hudson Valley Wolverines Blue saving its top pitchers for the playoffs in the 17-18U Wood Bat age bracket of Diamond Nation’s August Showdown – the Wolverines won their pool with one game to play – coach John Murray looked down his bench and called on Tarasenko, normally the team’s second baseman, to bridge the team from pool play to playoffs.
All the 5-10, 145-pound right-hander did was hurl a gem of a game. His three-hit shutout pushed the Wolverines past the Rockland Royals, 7-0, on Sunday at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
This is the final tournament of the summer for both ball clubs.
“Yeah I’m definitely a little surprised it went so well,” Tarasenko said. “We were in a good spot for the playoffs and we didn’t want to waste any other guys so I told him I could pitch if he needed me. I was a little nervous but it felt good to be out there.”
“It felt great to get us the win and end the summer with a bang.”
Tarasenko, a rising senior at Monroe Woodbury High in Woodbury, N.Y., needed just 82 pitches for his masterpiece, as he allowed three hits and one walk while striking out four with a fastball which barely reached the mid 60s.
“Honestly it’s because people are used to 70s, 80s, and when someone comes at you with 50s and 60s, your approach is messed up and you’re not sure how to take it,” said Wolverines pitcher Brian Caplicki, whose fastball dwells in the upper 70s. “Brandon threw great.”
Tarasenko said he’s pretty good at tuning out everything else when he’s on the field, but does hear the occasional snickering in pregame warmups when opposing teams are drooling over his fastball.
“Every time I come in I can hear guys saying, this is going to be light, they’re going to show me, and nothing happens,” Tarasenko said. “Sometimes I hear chirping in the beginning, but not at the end.”
In fact, he threw only fastballs until the fifth inning when he employed a handful of curveballs to get the last two batters swinging to end the game.
Murray said the Wolverines were a little short on pitching this weekend – they were missing their ace and two other pitchers got hit with pitches in the Royals game – said he had no qualms about throwing Tarasenko in the final pool play game, velocity be damned.
“Making sure I get it over the plate gives us the best chance to win,” Tarasenko said. “I knew I had good guys behind me, and I knew I had to get it over the plate and they would make the plays behind me.”
Murray said he had no qualms with the light-throwing Tarasenko getting the ball for the Wolverines. It was saving his pitching staff, for one thing. And he knew Tarasenko had something many club teams haven’t seen this summer.
“I knew we’d be tight on pitching, I knew he’d done it before, and I knew I could rely on him,” Murray said. “Baseball’s all about timing, and with Brandon he keeps you off speed. With these bigger tournaments, they’re all throwing high 70s, low 80s, and he goes in there and gets them off stride. I told him, pitch to contact and you’re gonna get a win.”
Tarasenko’s performance on the bump was not the first time this weekend he showed a flair for coming through in high-leverage situations.
Case in point: On Saturday evening, in the Wolverines’ first game of the day against the South Jersey Rams, the Wolverines loaded the bases with two out and the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Tarasenko came to bat and stroked a line drive over the shortstop for a walk-off RBI single.
“I can count on him because of the type of kid he is,” Murray said. “He takes the pressure out of the game.”
Tarasenko acknowledged he was the benefactor of some opportunistic offense.
In the top of the second inning Brandon Persons laid down a perfect squeeze bunt to score Collin Murray from third, and Jack Schlager later scored on a wild pitch for a 2-0 Wolverines lead.
In the third, Alex Exarchakis beat out a two-out infield hit to score Lukas Jachens, and in the fourth, a two-base infield error allowed Schlager and Persons to score.
The Wolverines capped the scoring in the top of the fifth when Exarchakis drove in a run with a sac fly and Murray slapped an RBI single up the middle (which was well-fielded by Royals shortstop Jon Diaz who dove into the hole to stop the ball but didn’t have time to get the throw to first).
“You have to be opportunistic here at Diamond Nation,” Murray said. “The teams are all good, and you have to find a way to push runs across the board because you never know when you’re gonna get ‘em. With the better teams, it’s good pitching, defense and timely hitting.”
Royals starter Connor Southwell allowed three earned runs on two hits and four walks with six strikeouts in three innings. Reliever Alex Polombo yielded four runs (two earned) on three hits, two walks and two hit batsmen.
The Wolverines entered the playoffs having beaten the TKR Reds (7-1), the South Jersey Rams (2-1) and the Royals. Hudson Valley then dropped a tight one, 7-5, to RCBC Marucci 17U in the 17U/18U Blue Bracket semifinals. RCBC Marucci went on to win the bracket championship.
The Royals finished their weekend 0-2-1. They bowed to the TKR Reds 7-1, tied the South Jersey Rams 2-2, and lost to the Wolverines.