By Rich Bevensee
It’s highly uncommon for 14-year-old pitchers to be able to jolt the radar guns with readings in the low-to-mid-80s.
But a pair of said teens matching zeroes for six innings by pairing velocity and wicked offspeed offerings with uncanny control? Exceptionally rare.
That was the scene on Sunday evening at Diamond Nation in Flemington as top-seeded Hustle Baseball Academy met second-seeded Bergen Crush in the Mother’s Day Classic 14U championship game.
The eighth graders played the game in the final hours of Mother’s Day – in fact, it was both teams’ fifth game of the day – but the effort from the mound was more than worthy of a packed house in prime time.
Hustle’s Jason Amalbert vs. Crush’s Ethan Lee. It was an exceptional showdown which set the bar for the remainder of every Diamond Nation tournament for every age group, a game which proclaimed: This is what a pitcher’s duel looks, smells and feels like.
Unfortunately one of these terrific hurlers had to lose, and as irony would have it, the game’s only run was due to a late throwing error. When C.J. Tedesco raced home safely from third in the bottom of the sixth inning with the clock inching toward midnight, Hustle Baseball had all the offense it needed for an unlikely 1-0 victory.
With the way both pitchers were carving up each other’s lineup, did Amalbert think anyone would score?
“Honestly, no. We were both dealing,” he said. “But we finally got a run across and we played well together.”
Here’s even more irony. As marvelous as both starting pitchers were, it was Hustle’s relief man who stole the spotlight on the mound with one inning of work walking the proverbial tightrope.
Hustle reliever Ollie Ellis was named the Most Valuable Player for pitching a scoreless seventh, but not without scaring the daylights out of his teammates.
The Crush was down to its final out after Ellis retired the first two batters, then loaded the bases on three straight walks. Ellis was forced to face the Crush’s best hitter, leadoff man Michael Hanna, a highly regarded eighth grader who’s headed to Don Bosco Prep next fall.
Hanna, a left-handed hitter who singled sharply through the hole at short in his previous at bat in the fifth, fell behind the count at 1-2 before Ellis got him to chase a high fastball for strike three.
“I heard he (Hanna) was a good player so any way I could get him out, I would take it,” Ellis said. “I tried to stay calm and that’s about it. I was nervous after I walked the first two batters but after coach (Lou Fernandez) came out and talked to me about it, it felt a lot better and it made me calmer.
“I loved the experience, every bit of it. I’ve never been in that situation before and coming through on center stage, it’s awesome.”
A half inning before, the Hustle Baseball pushed across the game’s only run in the most unlikely fashion, at least unbefitting such a well-pitched contest.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Hustle’s Tedesco and Jordan Burwell stood on second and first, respectively, thanks to a pair of walks – only the second time in the game Lee issued two walks in the same frame.
Lee got a strikeout for the second out and, with Nico Companion in the box, a pitch skittered just wide of the plate, enough so that Tedesco raced to third. The throw to third sailed high and wide of the bag and Tedesco turned the corner to score the game winner, but only after the throw from left field nailed him in the back.
“I always tell them when they win, they win, and when they lose, I lose,” said Crush coach Dave Group, whose team went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position in the game. “We had three or four chances to score and couldn’t come up with that big hit or that big situational play. Those are the breaks, that’s what happens. Sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t.”
The Crush’s best chance to score came in the top of the fifth, a chance which ended with a fortunate bounce for Hustle.
Hanna roped an opposite field, one-out single to left, then stole second and third. On a wild pitch, which skipped past Hustle catcher Eric Pinades, Hanna broke for home. Instead of the errant pitch rattling around the backstop, it bounced right back to Pinades, who flipped to Amalbert covering home to nail Hanna.
Amalbert, headed for DePaul Catholic next fall, pitched sensationally in a no-decision effort. With a fastball topping out at 82 and a curveball in the low 70s, he whiffed 10 in six shutout innings while allowing four hits and two walks on 99 pitches. His escape act Sunday included stranding seven Crush runners in scoring position.
“That was so much fun, going against Ethan,” Amalbert said. “Me and Ethan are best friends. We talk a lot of crap to each other, we’re competitive. He struck me out a couple times, I got him once. But I was confident we’d get it done somehow.”
As well as Amalbert performed, Hustle was actually an unlikely winner, judging solely by its linescore. Hustle managed just one base hit (by nine-hole hitter Cole Fiore) and committed three errors.
Lee, a future teammate of Hanna at Don Bosco, was just as amazing as Amalbert, if not moreso. Using a fastball in the mid 80s (topping at 85) and a curveball which sat in the low 70s and dropped off the table, the lanky right-hander permitted just that one base hit to Fiore, he struck out 14 and walked five.
Lee’s curveball was so devastating and located so perfectly on two-strike pitches that Crush catcher Alex D’Angelo was already throwing down to third before the umpire signaled strike three.
One jam which Lee escaped was especially impressive. With Fiore on third and just one out in the bottom of the third, Lee used his wicked curve to sit down the next two Hustle batters, the second with a full count.
“He battled all the way,” Group said of Lee. “That’s a pretty good hitting team over there, I was surprised they barreled up some of his balls, worked him really hard in the beginning of the game. When he settled in, he was pretty good. You won’t find a better 14U pitcher. I think he’s varsity level right now.”