By Rich Bevensee
Nick Donofrio, 16, and his younger brother Vincent, 13, spent the latter half of the summer making frequent trips to the Johnson High School baseball field in Clark to help Vincent get accustomed to pitching and playing on a 90-foot diamond.
And don’t think Vincent isn’t appreciative of his brother’s time. It was all he could talk about after he pitched a three-hit shutout for the Out Of The Park Cyclones Prospects 13U ballclub, which defeated the Jersey Shore Wildcats, 4-0, to claim the 13U Slugfest championship on Sunday afternoon at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
Donofrio, who played on a 45-60 field all summer in 12U tournaments, yielded two walks, struck out four and received a healthy dose of defensive highlights to earn the victory.
“I played with my brother Nick at the field at Johnson, so coming over here and pitching, I felt fine because I was already warmed up by my brother,” Donofrio said. “He would tell me how my curveball or changeup was because he’s a pitcher, too. All that practice with my brother helped because of working on the distance change.”
Cyclones third baseman Cody Alicea earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. Alicea went 5-for-10 with a double, triple and seven RBI to help his team complete a 4-0 weekend, and he made a highlight reel-worthy diving catch in the final.
Donofrio wasn’t the only 13U Cyclones ballplayer who benefitted from the advice of an older player. The Cyclones have three sets of brothers
– Nick (16U) and Vincent Donofrio (13U), Landon (16U) and Dylan Pudlak (13U), and Alex (16U) and Lucas Bolton (13U) – who play for either team.
And 13U assistant coach Mike Pudlak said since he and head coach Travis Zilg coach both teams, they organize joint practices.
The results speak for themselves.
“The older guys feel like they can mentor and the younger guys get to learn,” Pudlak said. “And it’s been really helpful to the younger guys to see how the older guys do it.”
“This shows we’re ready to hit and field and win tournaments on the bigger field,” Donofrio said.
The left-handed Donofrio, utilizing a fastball, curveball and changeup, showed no signs at all of being a rookie on the big field. Six Wildcat batters reached against Donofrio but none advanced past first base.
“Vinnie was awesome,” Pudlak said. “He’s been one of our aces for three years straight. And that’s probably the 12th, 13th, 14th championship game he’s pitched in, so there’s no nerves. He just goes out there and executes. We tell him to trust the pitches we’re calling and trust his defense, and he does a good job for the most part getting strike one early, which allows him to work his off speed curveball and changeup. He was phenomenal today, and he normally is.”
The defensive highlights were plentiful. Donofrio helped himself by fielding a dribbler in front of the mound in the first inning and firing to first in time to get Max Espeja.
In the second, shortstop Bolton, second baseman Gianni Cenicola and first baseman Nick Yacykewych demonstrated a seamless 6-4-3 double play. Bolton showed some alert fielding by grabbing a grounder which struck Donofrio and threw to first in time to get Espeja in the fifth.
And for good measure, Alicea made an acrobatic leap to his right over the third base bag to snare a line drive off the bat of Jude LaForge in the sixth inning.
“I just had to make my pitches and trust my defense because in the first inning I wasn’t on,” Donofrio said. “I was falling off the mound, but if they put the ball in play the defense had my back and I kept going.”
Donofrio and Wildcats righty Charlie Mahony traded zeroes for three innings in what shaped up to be a terrific pitchers’ duel.
Mahoney lasted 3⅓ innings and surrendered three runs on four hits and three walks with five strikeouts.
In the bottom of the fourth, Cyclones No. 11 hitter Cole Webster led off by bunting for a hit, his team’s first, and with one out James Esposito doubled to the left center gap and plated Webster for the game’s first run.
The Esposito blast sparked the Cyclones, who threw a three-spot on the board in the fourth. Pudlak (2-for-3) stroked a bases-loaded, opposite-field single into right to score Esposito, and Alicea scored from third on an infield error off a Yacykewych grounder.
The Cyclones added insurance in the fourth when Amit Gandra scored on an error following a Cenicola ground ball.
“It felt good to have some runs on the board because I could go out there and I didn’t have to worry if I gave up a run. I could just keep pitching,” Donofrio said.
Cody Alicea of OOTP Cyclones was named MVP of the 13U Slugfest.
The 13U Cyclones are showing no signs of growing pains on the 90-foot diamond. This weekend they allowed just two runs – which means terrific pitching and defense – while scoring 23 through four games.
“We’ve had eight practices since they’ve transitioned,” Pudlak said. “We played in a Perfect Game tournament last weekend and they played pretty well. Even at the end of the summer in 12U we were practicing on 60-90 fields and practicing with bigger athletes, just to get them ready.
“The game’s the same, the fields are just bigger. That’s what we’re trying to preach to them.”
Justin Monterosso, Robinson Stio and Cole Kerstetter were the only batters to record a base hit for the Wildcats, who went 3-0 in pool play and outscored the opposition 23-10 to reach the final.
Pitching well in relief in the championship game for the Wildcats were Vincent Garibaldi, who went 1⅔ innings and allowed one run on two walks with one strikeout; and Espeja, who pitched a scoreless inning with one hit, one hit batsman and one strikeout.