Daniel Johns of Keystone State takes a rip during his team’s victory over Willis Otanez Baseball.
By Rich Bevensee
One month ago, the Keystone State Bombers 13U Americans ballclub endured a bumpy ride in the opening weekend of the tournament season.
The Bombers won just one of three games and were outscored 25-10 in their two losses. Coach Joe Hruska called the weekend performance “sloppy.”
Three weeks and three tournaments later, the Bombers returned to Diamond Nation in Flemington a vastly improved team.
Led by a strong pitching performance from Ben Nordai, Keystone completed a sweep of its two pool play games on Friday in the Nation’s Easter Extravaganza after its 10-3 defeat of the Willis Otanez Baseball Academy in the nightcap.
The Bombers beat Sportika Baseball 13U Red, 4-0, earlier in the day.
“We got beat up pretty bad the first time out,” Hruska said of the season-opening weekend when his team competed in the Spring Invitational, March 17-19, at ‘The Nation.’ “But the kids have been working hard and they’re really starting to come together as a team. They’re doing really well, really coming along, starting to understand assignments, backing up everywhere.”
Nordai carried a one-hit shutout into the fourth inning, while his offense backed him by getting nine of the 11 batters in the lineup to reach base, with six of them scoring.
“Four weeks ago we weren’t playing as a team. We didn’t really know where to go,” said Daniel Johns, who went 2-for-2 with a triple, three RBI and two runs scored for the Bombers. “Our defense is the biggest thing that improved from that first week.”
Johns admitted the defense had an easy night playing behind Nordai. The strong righty used a five-pitch arsenal to strike out six and allowed just one batted ball out of the infield through his 3⅔ innings of work.
“He’s only 13 but he’s gonna be a big-time pitcher from what we’ve seen,” Hruska said. “I don’t know what he was topping out at today but he’s got a hammer for a breaking ball – phenomenal for a 13-year-old. He’s been pretty dominant.”
In his fourth outing of the season, Nordai used a fastball, curveball, a two-seamer and a change – as well as a cutter he learned two weeks ago – to baffle Otanez Academy before faltering a bit in the top of the fourth inning. He surrendered a hit and two walks to load the bases with two out before exiting with a 3-0 count on Jeret Torres.
Landon Yeingst walked Torres and surrendered a hit before getting the final out of the game.
Nordai’s line included three runs, two earned, on two hits and seven walks with six strikeouts in his 3⅔ innings.
“That last inning it was getting kinda cold out here and my fingers were losing feeling,” Nordai said. “I try not to think about the cold. I try to think it’s a beach out here, 90 and sunny, like I’m somewhere else. I’ve improved a lot since my first start. I’ve got a little bit more control of all my pitches.”
The Bombers, based out of Manheim, Pa., jumped all over Otanez Academy in the bottom of the first inning, scoring five runs on one hit, five walks and two errors. Johns’ two-run triple down the right field line was the big hit in that frame, and he scored on the same play when the relay throw was bobbled.
In the top of the second, the Bombers defense helped Nordai maintain his shutout. With no out and runners on second and third, Fernando Encarnacion tried to score from third on a wild pitch but Bombers catcher Grady Topf alertly scrambled to the backstop and tossed to a covering Nordai at the plate to nab Encarnacion.
Miguel Lazo moved over to third on that play, and two pitches later, Nordai’s pickoff throw was off target and Lazo broke for home. Third baseman Kaleb Kirchoff fired to Topf to throw out Lazo.
The Bombers made it 6-0 in the second when Yeingst scored on a wild pitch.
Keystone State continued to pour it on in the third inning with four runs on two hits, two walks and an error to make it a 10-0 game. Tupf scored on an infield error, Johns had an RBI single, Grant Niebel scored on a balk and Colin McDonel added an RBI single.
“I’d say the biggest thing has been that their baseball IQ is improving,” Hruska said. “The boys really do have the talent but they lack understanding of the game. The more they’re playing and more we’re covering stuff, the better we’re getting.”
In the top half of the fourth, with the Bombers needing just three outs to end the game via the mercy rule, Otanez Academy showed some life.
Luis Hernandez singled through the middle, and Tomas Soriano and Lazo both walked to load the bases. After Nordai got a strikeout for the second out, Torres walked to force in a run. Angel Nunez had a run-scoring single and Lazo showed some aggressive baserunning by scoring from second on the throw to first.
The Bombers were to play Canes New Jersey 13U on Saturday before the playoffs begin. Semifinals are at 4:30 p.m. and the championship game is at 6:30 p.m.
Otanez Academy, which draws players from Union City, N.J., and Philadelphia, finished 0-2 on Friday with the loss to the Bombers, and completed pool play with a Saturday game against Sportika.