NE Baseball’s DiBenedictis walks it off for Super 16 title

By Bob Behre | August 24, 2020

Through six innings, Stars Baseball 16U’s pitching had absolutely stifled the routinely confident bats of Northeast Baseball.

Righthander Owen Pierce and lefty Sean McCloy had shut out Northeast Baseball on three hits while striking out 10 and walking none. It wasn’t looking much better at all for the team from Boston when McCloy struck out the first two batters of the bottom of the seventh inning.

Perhaps this was when the baseball gods’ sick sense of humor raised their ugly heads. Stars Baseball would not get another out as five Northeast Batters came to the plate and all reached.

The last of those five batters, Andrew DiBenedictis, lined an opposite field double about an inch inside the left field line that chased home the tying and winning runs, capping a wild comeback from apparent baseball death.

Northeast Baseball’s 3-2 victory secured the Super 16U Invitational E-F Bracket championship on Sunday afternoon at Diamond Nation.

No one needed to check DiBenedictis’ pulse in the post-game because it was still racing after his clutch hit.

“It’s just a tough group of guys,” DiBenedictis said of his teammates. “We knew we were still in it.”

The two-out, none-on rally unfolded, innocently, with a great McCloy pitch that Northeast’s No. 2 hitter, Sam Armbruster, wristed down the third base line. Third baseman Logan Darrow made a fine play on the ball but his throw to first base was late. Armbruster’s infield hit had given Northeast Baseball life.

“I knew if we got our meat of the order up we’d have a shot,” said Northeast Baseball coach Matt Petherick.

McCloy then walked Matt Conte on four pitches and Northeast Baseball suddenly had the tying runs aboard. It was an especially unpleasant situation for Stars Baseball, considering the 6-5, 232-pound Payton Manca was striding to the plate.

“That had us in and out, 1-2-3, until the seventh. I wasn’t swinging it well myself.”

Manca hadn’t enjoyed Pierce much, striking out and grounding out to shortstop. So, maybe the sight of McCloy was as much a relief as a change of pace. The lefty-hitting Manca took a strike then latched onto a fastball on the outer half and drove it over left fielder C.K. Kim’s head for what looked like a sure two-run, game-tying double. But the hot shot bounced over the left field fence for a grounds rule double.

“I was thinking if it wasn’t turf, we had a tied game,” said Manca, who hit a three-run homer in his team’s tournament opening win on Friday over TTS Prospects. Manca was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Payton Manca of Northeast Baseball, front and center, was named the Super 16U Invitational EF Bracket MVP.

Armbruster scored on the double to shave the deficit to 2-1 but Conte had to stop at third base as Manca cruised into second, representing the winning run. McCloy was pulled and the Virginia-based Stars Baseball brought in another live arm in the righty Darrow.

Alec Popovich, the No. 5 hitter, was intentionally walked to load the bases, setting up a force everywhere. DiBenedictis, who had just an infield single to his credit, stepped in. A Darrow heater had him behind quickly at 0-1.

“I had to see one pitch,” said DiBenedictis. “I thought he’d try to pitch me away so I got tighter on the plate. He threw me a fastball middle out, which is where I like it.”

DiBenedictis’ liner fell safely inside the left field line as Conte and Manca scored easily with the tying and winning runs, just beating a throng of teammates pouring out of the dugout to the plate.

The game had gone to script for Stars Baseball to that point, showcasing excellent pitching, strong defense and a couple of effective at bats that had seemed to be enough.

Stars Baseball struck for their two runs in the top of the first inning. Leadoff hitter Max Ehrhardt singled and No. 2 hitter John Stansbury reached on an infield error. Both runners advanced into scoring position on the overthrow at first base.

T.J. Johnson and Sean Pokarak both got good wood on the ball and delivered both runners with consecutive sac flies to center field. That quick 2-0 lead seem to gain in size each inning as Pierce sported an overpowering fastball and a deftly mix of curveball and slider.

Armbruster singled with one out in the first inning but Pierce, dealing, retired the next 13 batters in a row, striking out eight of those batters. That carried him to two outs in the fifth before Northeast Baseball showed life again.

Popovich singled to right and DiBenedictis beat out a roller to third base. But Pierce wouldn’t have it. He induced Jack Richardson to bounce to first base. The bouncer took a bad hop and deflected off first baseman Josh McCusker’s chest and over his head. But second baseman T.J. Johnson was there to scoop it up and fire to Pierce covering first base for the third out. The scintillating out seemed to give further evidence that this was Stars Baseball’s game.

McCloy started the sixth and had a quick 1-2-3 inning as Darrow and center fielder Bryce Gaines made defensive gems.

Stars Baseball, which came up empty with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth, would strand two runners in the top of the seventh with just one out.

That was the developing story that preceded the heroics in the bottom of the seventh. Northeast Baseball’s pitchers had regained their footing after allowing the two runs in the first inning.

Right-handed starter Armbruster allowed just one base runner, on a hit-by-pitch, in the second and third innings before lefty Will Perry took over to start the fourth. Perry got out of the jam in the fourth and retired Stars Baseball in order in the fifth and sixth.

Perry was lifted in the seventh after issuing a one-out walk to Pokarak as Petherick called on righty Drew Macchi. Macchi walked Kim but got out of it with a pop up and a strikeout to send it to the last of the seventh.

“Our pitchers did a nice job,” said Petherick. “Perry did a really good job. He was economical and he kept us in it.“

Despite committing two errors, Northeast Baseball played a strong defense game. Shortstop Cal Thompson made two nice plays, one on a liner he knocked down and turned into an out to end the fourth and another on a slow bouncer in the middle of the diamond that he had to charge in for.

“We try to keep it as simple as possible,” said Petherick. “Throw first-pitch strikes and play good defense.”

Northeast Baseball (3-0-1) outscored its tournament opponents 29-19. Stars Baseball 16U (Steinberg) (2-2) held a 15-9 runs advantage on its opponents.

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