By Rich Bevensee
Mike Mariano, Jr., got a small taste of pitching in a high-leverage situation just a few months ago, throwing a perfect inning of relief in a Connie Mack league championship game in Northampton, Pa.
On Sunday, Mariano was facing much higher stakes. He was handed the ball to start in a Diamond Nation tournament championship game for his PA Shockers club team.
Some pitchers compete in big games. Some players are big game pitchers.
Mariano proved on Sunday that he belongs in the latter category, limiting a potent Diamond Jacks Super 16U squad to three runs on five hits in a 4-3 victory in the 16U Grand Slam Tournament championship game at ‘The Nation’ in Flemington.
“I knew I had to be a dog and we had to win this game,” Mariano said. “Everyone wanted it so I put my head down and made it work.”
Mariano, a 5-7, 185-pound righthander, was brilliant from the outset, holding the Diamond Jacks to one hit through the first four innings. For the game he limited them to 1-for-7 hitting with runners in scoring position. Mariano allowed one walk and struck out seven to earn the honor of being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“For seven innings you have to be mentally strong,” Mariano said. “There are going to be ups and downs in games but you need to keep fighting and have a short memory.”
“There’s a reason why I saved him for the championship game,” said Shockers coach Alex Crim, whose team is 9-0 this fall. “He’s our No. 1 and he’s our guy who will go out there and win us a ballgame. Seven innings, complete game. That’s Michael Mariano for you.”
Mariano also helped his own cause with a key RBI single in the bottom of the fifth inning. In the top of the fifth, the Diamond Jacks scored twice to climb within 3-2 of the Shockers. In the bottom of the frame with two outs, Mariano lined the first pitch he saw from reliever Soren Gregor into right field, scoring Caleb Gonzalez with an important insurance run for a 4-2 lead.
The Diamond Jacks got that run right back in the sixth with an RBI groundout by Blake Echternacht, keeping them within a run at 4-3.
In the seventh, Mariano had to survive a bit of drama before celebrating when he allowed the tying run to reach first after he hit leadoff batter Gregor with a pitch. Gregor reached second on a wild pitch with one out.
Mariano retired Jake Wang with a strikeout for the second out. Anthony Denora then lofted a towering pop up inside the right field line, prompting Shockers first baseman Tyler Deery to charge over, then leaned back to make the catch of a wind-blown ball for the final out.
Mariano was asked how he stayed focused with the potential tying run in scoring position after pitching so well for six innings.
“You have to stay focused on what’s important,” Mariano said. “You don’t need to worry about that runner. You need to worry about the batter and nothing else.”
Crim said though the Liberty High sophomore has pitched in big games before for the Shockers, this was his finest hour.
“Mike’s a great pitcher because of how he mixes his speeds,” Crim said. “He’s not gonna throw it by you, but when he mixes speeds he makes you very uncomfortable at bat.”
Crim said the Diamond Jacks were timing Mariano’s fastball in the early going so the plan changed to start them with curveballs and close out batters with the fastball.
“He was phenomenal,” said Shockers catcher Dan Grosch, a sophomore at Lansdale (Pa.) Catholic who has caught Mariano for the last two years. “His curveball was amazing tonight. We were going curveball-fastball, and no fastballs in the zone. This is the best he’s pitched since I’ve known him.”
“From the start, my curveball was hitting both corners,” Mariano said, working with a five-pitch mix of four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a curve, changeup and splitter. “And we knew as soon as we got them offspeed with the curveball they couldn’t touch me so we just kept working away and getting swings and misses, and once in a while I’d throw a high fastball and change the eye level and it was all over.”
Back-to-back defensive gems by the Diamond Jacks in the bottom of second inning delayed the Shockers from claiming an early lead.
With one out and Mariano on first, center fielder Jayden Capindica went to his knees to catch a Grosch fly ball headed for the left center gap that would have surely scored Mariano.
The next batter, Luke Poley dropped a base hit into shallow left and because Mariano was waiting to see if it would be caught, he was thrown out at second when Diamond Jacks left fielder Rob Sikorski threw to second baseman Jake Yang for the force.
The Shockers got their offense clicking with two runs in the third inning. No. 9 hitter Andrew Rendler, the designated hitter, singled and eventually scored on a wild pitch, and Matt Rader singled up the middle to score Caleb Gonzalez.
In the fourth, Grosch walked and scored on a wild pitch to give the Shockers a 3-0 lead.
The Diamond Jacks trimmed the deficit to 3-2 in the top of the fifth. Jared Levine, Sikorski and Gregor strung together consecutive hits to get the Diamond Jacks their first run, and Yang added an RBI sacrifice fly. Deery ended the inning with a sensational catch of a pop up in foul territory, by reaching into the bullpen at the last second for the out.
The Shockers, who outscored five opponents 45-6, received terrific pitching for all five outings this weekend.
Grosch pitched a five-inning complete game in the Shockers’ 8-0 tournament-opening win over Warehouse Grizzlies ‘25 Purple. Poley and Mariano each had two RBI.
Poley pitched his own five-inning complete game in a 9-1 win over ASBA Futures Navy, while Cole Reich went 3-for-3 and Mariano was 2-for-2 with three RBI.
Deery pitched the Shockers to a 14-0 win over Complete Performance Baseball by tossing a three-inning no-hitter with seven strikeouts. Mariano went 2-for-2 with a double and three RBI.
In the semifinals, the Shockers knocked off Diamond Jacks 16U Gold 10-2. Cam Serafin struck out 10 over five innings and Rendler went 2-for-2 with four RBI.
In the championship game for the Diamond Jacks, Matt Kurer pitched four innings and allowed three runs on five hits and one walk with four strikeouts. Gregor pitched two innings in relief and surrendered a run on three hits and one walk with three strikeouts.
The Diamond Jacks’ march to the championship game began on Saturday with a 9-0 shutout of Complete Game Colonials Blue and a 10-1 decision over Locked In Baseball Expos Black.
On Sunday the Diamond Jacks completed pool play with a 7-4 win over Baseball U Pa. They eliminated Team Francisco Notorious 9 in the semifinals with an 11-2 victory.