By Rich Bevensee
While it may be unfair to say Matt Moore is a stranger to the pitcher’s mound, it’s not unreasonable to estimate that he hasn’t spent much time there.
Moore, the starting shortstop for the Diamond Jacks 18U Gold baseball team, had been used as a spot reliever here and there, but he’d never been asked to start, let alone go the distance.
And yet there he was on Sunday evening, trying to convince coach Mike Buckelew to let him remain on the bump in a sixth inning of a championship game. He was nearly 100 pitches deep and was protecting a slim lead with the bases loaded.
“I didn’t ask for the ball, and I don’t think he wanted to give it to me,” Buckelew said. “He said to me, ‘Coach, I’m feeling great.’ He wanted it. I’m a pitchers coach. They show me they’re not laboring, I’ll give them an inch. He probably took more than an inch.”
Moore, who was pitching a three-hit shutout through five innings, survived that sixth-inning scare and finished off the Locked in Baseball Expos ‘23, 4-3, to bring the Diamond Jacks the 17/18U Fall Brawl tournament championship on Sunday at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
The Gold team won their first title in their final tournament together.
“A lot of these guys have been together for quite a while and this is our last tournament together,” said Buckelew, whose team improved to 14-2-1 for the fall season. “For them to end the way they did, hats off to them. I enjoyed the whole ride.”
Moore, a 5-9, 160-pound senior at Bridgewater-Raritan, scattered seven hits, walked two and struck out eight over 116 pitches to earn co-Most Valuable Player honors with teammate Jack Kopera. Kopera pitched a complete-game two-hitter against the New Jersey Titans in the semifinals.
“This means everything to me,” Moore said. “It felt great winning my last tournament at Diamond Nation.”
“It was a very good way to end my DJack career. I’m ecstatic,” said Brayden Keller, a senior at Somerville High who was in the middle of every scoring inning for the Diamond Jacks. He scored on a wild pitch in the first inning for a 2-0 lead. He had an RBI single in the second inning to make it 3-0. And he scored from second base on an infield throwing error to make it 4-0.
“Confidence was definitely the biggest factor for Matt,” Keller said. “It started in the dugout – everyone was behind him the entire time, telling him he’s got it. And he had the confidence, too. He was really dealing. I’m really happy for him.”
Kopera, one of the Diamond Jacks’ regular pitchers, allowed two hits and struck out 10 in six innings in the semifinals. He came away impressed with Moore’s desire to not let his team down.
“He’s probably pitched in two games for us the whole season,” Kopera said. “It was tough but he made it work. It just shows how much this team needs him. We didn’t have much pitching left and Matt came through.”
Moore said he jumped at the chance when Buckelew approached him before the semifinals about pitching in the championship game.
Moore pitched in and out of trouble through the first three innings and stranded five baserunners. He pitched a clean fourth inning and allowed just one walk in the fifth.
The sixth inning is where things got dicey for Moore and the Diamond Jacks. After getting a strikeout to start the inning, Moore allowed singles to Brendan Callanan (2-for-3) and Joseph Barlovic and he hit Connor Watson with a pitch to load the bases.
Out of the dugout came Buckelew to chat with Moore. It was surprising to most to see Buckelew leave Moore in the game. And Moore was not exactly handing the ball over when his coach joined him on the mound.
“When Coach came out, he asked me if I had the courage to keep going,” Moore said. “I can’t repeat what I said, but I basically told him I wanted to keep going and finish the game.”
With Moore still on the hill, he surrendered an RBI single to Will Mumby, who finished 2-for-3. The next batter, Chris Cohen, belted a double to the right-center field wall which very nearly cleared the bases.
Calanan and Barlovic crossed to make the score 4-3, and Watson, trying to score from first, rounded third and headed for home with the potential game-tying run. Diamond Jacks center fielder Lance Eilbacher retrieved the ball and threw to second baseman Jordan Chui, who relayed to catcher Sebastian Morales, who tagged Watson for the final out – a play which could have been called either way – and preserved a one-run lead.
“That was the defensive play of the tournament,” Buckelew said. “A big-time play.”
That play was the first of two close calls which had the Expos wondering “What if?” when the game was over.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Expos’ Dominic Costanza walked with one out, representing the tying run. Moore got a strikeout for the second out. Evan Ravalli then grounded to short where Jacob Rosado threw him out on a bang-bang play to clinch the title.
Expos coach Chris Bagley said there was no question he was sending Watson home in the sixth.
“Two outs, ball on the fence, you gotta try and score the guy from first base. Gotta try and tie the game up,” Bagley said. “We had a guy thrown out at the plate – tough call there, and another one to end the game. Tough way to lose a championship.”
The Expos entered the final as the top seed after going 3-0 through pool play and out-scoring the opposition 27-3.
“We were short on numbers but our pitching was great the entire weekend,” Bagley said.
The play at first base for the final out set off a raucous celebration for the Diamond Jacks. Amidst all the screaming and chest-bumping and picture-taking, Buckelew revealed even more about his underdog pitcher.
“Before Matt went out for the seventh inning, he told me, ‘I’m not going out there to chase a trophy, but we’ve never won here, and this means more to us as a group than just a trophy.’
“He was the ultimate team guy. He said he wanted to do this for the team. These guys have had a great run together but they’ve never been able to get over the hump. Matt helped them get them over the hump tonight.”