By Sean Reilly
There could have been any number of thoughts going through Brett Connolly’s head, but his mind remained clear in what was the toughest of pitching situations.
Connolly, a PA Rebels reliever, was on the mound in the bottom of the sixth and final inning of the Diamond Nation 17/18U Top 25 championship game on Wednesday afternoon in Flemington.
The opposing Jersey Boyz had already scored once in the frame to close within a run. The Jersey Boyz also had the bases loaded, with one out, and the title on the line. The number five batter in the lineup was at the plate.
“It just had to bear down and get back to basics,” Connolly said. “I wasn’t too worried. I just had to stay calm.”
Connolly struck out that batter looking, and then induced a pop out to shortstop to end the game, as the PA Rebels closed out their season with a dramatic 9-8 victory for the tournament championship.
The victory completed an active 48 hours at ‘The Nation’ for the team from West Chester, Pa. The Rebels closed out the three-day tournament with a 4-1 record and 22-15 run differential.
“This was a great way to end the season,” Connolly said.
The final three defensive innings featured impressive plays by Rebels.
The Jersey Boyz scored three times to close within 8-7 and had runners on first and second with one out in the fourth. That’s when Rebels starting pitcher Dylan Rosco picked the lead runner off at second base, before catcher Josh Houston threw out the other runner trying to steal second to snuff out the rally.
The score was still 8-7 in the bottom of the fifth, when the Jersey Boyz began the inning with a leadoff walk. But Connolly, in his first inning of work, induced a 6-4-3 double play, followed by a foul pop out to first base, to maintain the lead.
The PA Rebels added an ultra-important insurance run in the top of the sixth. Eddie Cwiertniewicz led off with a walk, stole second and moved to third on a throwing error, before scoring for a 9-7 lead on a one-out sacrifice fly to center field by Kyle Mandirola.
The 1:50 time clock was running out, but before the Rebels could celebrate, they would have to navigate the bottom of the sixth inning.
The discerning Ryan Bevensee led off the frame for the Jersey Boys by coaxing a walk on a 3-2 pitch. That sent up the top of the order, where Matt Corwin also walked.
Eddie Cwiertniewicz of the PA Rebels was named MVP of the Super 17 Top 25 Showcase.
To make matters worse for Connolly and the Rebels, a wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position. Jaden Carpien, who had already singled twice in the game, then worked the count full, and hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Bevensee.
With Corwin still on second representing the tying run, Joey Haines walked. Cleanup man Danny Ciprian was up next, and hit a first-pitch single that dropped into shallow left field, loading the bases and putting the potential winning run on second.
Connolly buckled down and got the second out via a called strikeout.
“Thanks to Josh Houston for framing that,” he said. “It was a fastball low and away.”
The next batter popped out, and the Rebels could then exhale before accepting the first-place hardware.
“It’s a great, relieving feeling,” Connolly said. “I had a nice curveball to help get the fastball working on that strikeout, and then I just rode the fastball to get more strikes on that pop up.”
The tone for a high-scoring game was set when each team scored four times in the first inning.
The Rebels opening inning included a leadoff triple by Gavin Trainer, an RBI single from Ryan Price, a two-run single by Connolly and an RBI single from Will Roth.
The Jersey Boyz used two walks and a single to load the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the first. Ryan Quinones had an RBI single, and the others scored on a hit by pitch, a walk and a wild pitch.
The Rebels took a 5-4 lead in the third, when Mandirola slugged an opposite field home run over the fence in right field.
The Rebels lead expanded their advantage to 8-4 in the fourth. The inning started with singles by Cody Heyduk and Trainer (2-for-4) to put runners on the corners before Cwiertniewicz hit an RBI single to right field. Price (2-for-4) then hit a run-scoring single to center. After Mandirola was hit by a pitch, Joe O’Connor delivered a sacrifice fly to left field.
The first two Jersey Boyz batters in the bottom of the fourth reached on errors which led to a run. Joey Haines had an RBI groundout and Quinones (2-for-4) hit an RBI single to center to make the score 8-7, before the pickoff and caught stealing ended the inning.
Cwiertniewicz, who capped a strong tournament with a 1-for-3 showing with a walk, run and RBI in the final, was selected the tournament MVP.
“This was a good week, with a lot of games,” said Cwiertniewicz, a rising senior at Garnet Valley High School. “We played together as a team and believed in ourselves. The best way to end the season is to go out with a win.”