By Rich Bevensee
Luka Manfredi didn’t find out he was pitching in the biggest game of his young career until about 30 minutes before the first pitch.
Considering the circumstances, Manfredi had every right to be a bundle of uncontrollable nerves. He was pitching for his new team, Diamond Jacks Gold 12U, in a tournament championship game against a familiar group of boys who by their very moniker are supposed to be a tad better on the talent plane.
All those factors were working against Manfredi, and he didn’t blink. In fact, he very nearly didn’t give up a hit in a performance that had veteran coach Mike Raymond shaking his head in disbelief.
Manfredi carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and boosted Diamond Jacks Gold to a shocking 10-3 victory over their clubhouse peers, Diamond Jacks Super 12U, in the 12U Grand Slam championship on Sunday at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
“I didn’t know I had a no-hitter going. I was just trying to throw strikes and make them hit the ball,” said Manfredi, who went 3⅔ innings before yielding a two-out base hit to Super 12U leadoff hitter Ryan Nigro.
“I wasn’t even expecting to pitch,” Manfredi said. “I was expecting one of the returners to do it. I found out in the batting cage. After the second inning I felt I was getting in the groove. I used my four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball and I was just banging it.”
Manfredi and Kyle Ur, another new member of the Gold squad, were named co-Most Valuable Players of the tournament. Ur homered and doubled twice over the four-game weekend. He had an RBI double and walked twice in the championship game.
“I knew I’d have fun with a new team but I didn’t know it would go like this immediately,” Ur said. “It’s been fun, putting in work in practice and executing in games, working hard and then it all comes together when we win. My mindset is the Supers are just another team we have to beat. They’re good, but just another team we have to beat.”
12U Grand Slam co-MVPs Luka Manfredi and Kyle Ur of Diamond Jacks Gold.
The Super 12U squad advanced to the final as the top seed after going 3-0 in pool play and out-scoring the opposition 35-14. The Gold team had a much more modest scoring differential (17-21) and finished 2-1 in pool play to tie Millburn. Gold advanced to the final on a tiebreaker because it beat Millburn head to head.
Raymond, a longtime Diamond Jacks instructor who was acting as the Gold team coach, said he didn’t believe it was an upset for the Gold team to defeat the Supers, noting that expectations are equally high for both squads.
“The No. 1 goal of the program is to meet each other in the finals,” Raymond said. “We feel like, as an organization, meeting in the finals is a successful weekend. Unfortunately somebody has to lose and somebody has to win and our kids came ready to play.”
Manfredi lasted four innings before tiring in the bottom of the fifth, yielding a pair of back-to-back doubles to Tyler LaGanga and Ian Peros before handing off to Carl Liston, who pitched the final two frames. Manfredi yielded three runs on three hits and no walks and he struck out three.
“That was only Luka’s second time pitching for us,” Raymond said. “He threw a ton of strikes, kept the ball down, got a lot of ground ball outs and our defense played phenomenally behind him. Carl (at shortstop) and (third baseman Braiden) Kelly did a really nice job on the left side.”
Indeed, Liston and Kelly handled seven of eight combined chances without an error.
The Gold team served notice immediately that it was not to be taken lightly, scoring three runs in the top of the first inning when Carmen Bruno stroked a two-run double and soon scored on a passed ball.
Anthony Bott added an RBI groundout in the second inning.
In the third, Gold added two runs for a 6-0 lead when Thomas Crowley scored on a wild pitch and Ur drove a run-scoring double into center.
The Supers threatened to wreck Manfredi’s outing in the bottom of the third when they had runners on second and third and one out, but Manfredi escaped damage with a strikeout and a comebacker.
Bruno scored after an error on a Jack Bower grounder in the fourth to make it 7-0.
Gold tacked on three more runs in the fifth for a 10-0 lead. Courtesy runner Jake Petrillo scored from third when Luca Eberle purposely got picked off first. Kelly then ripped an RBI single into left and later scored on a passed ball.
“I’m surprised a lot by how we won,” Manfredi said. “Playing the Super team is crazy in general, but just getting half of them out is crazy.
“It’s a big win because there was a lot of trash talk before the game between the two teams. ‘We’re going to crush you. We’re going to mercy you in the third inning.’ We just started hitting the ball. I think that was what did it, the hitting.”
The Super team finally broke through in the bottom of the fifth. Tim Donahue led off by reaching on a rare fielding error and LaGanga and Peros followed that up with ringing doubles. Ryan Beirne added a third run for Super with an RBI single up the middle.