Panthers walk-off highlights Diamond Nation season openers

By Bob Behre | July 6, 2020

Bridgewater’s Zach Halpin delivered the game winning hit in a 15U Diamond Nation World Series opener.

The Bridgewater Panthers and Locked In Expos 15U squads exhibited a bit of rust as they opened up the long awaited 2020 summer tournament season at Diamond Nation on Monday morning, while the Panthers delivered the initial memorable moment in the 15U Diamond Nation World Series.

Zach Halpin’s RBI grounder with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning scored Danny Smith with the winning run and capped a four-run rally that enabled Bridgewater to edge Locked In, 6-5. The game was played to a 1:40 time limit.

“I was shaking when I went up there,” said Halpin about his at bat with the bases-loaded and the winning run just 90 feet away. “I got away with a dinker.” Halpin fell behind 0-2 but muscled a high chopper over the pitchers mound that was enough to allow the speedy Smith to race home from third.

Noah Matheson had tied the game at 5-5 earlier in the inning on a well hit sac fly to center field that scored Tony Lu from third base. Lu just beat the throw home from center fielder Kevin Hager.

“I got a fastball up a little,” said Matheson, “and just tried to drive it.” By now, the Bridgewater dugout and fans were electric.

The four-run rally was ignited in quiet but effective fashion. Cole Cabatu, the Panthers’ No. 9 hitter, led off and was hit by a pitch. Brandon Fisher, the No. 10 hitter, then drew a walk to flip the lineup back to the top and put the Panthers in business. Lu then drew a walk to load the bases as Locked In coach Andy Hyde went to his third pitcher of the game. That brought up Smith (2-for-3, 2 RBI) who had singled home Bridgewater’s first run of the game in his previous at bat.

Reliever Sam Perez uncorked a wild pitch allowing Cabatu to score and trim the deficit to 5-3. Smith then came through again, singling through the left side to score Fisher and draw the Panthers to within a run at 5-4. Matheson’s shot to center tied the game before Perez intentionally walked cleanup hitter Casey Colbert.

Ryan Bemben’s one-out bunt was misplayed and the bases were loaded again. Halpin then came through with his just-enough grounder.

“Our team is very competitive and they refuse to lose,” said Panthers coach Justin Kim, who has coached this same group since they were 13. “They know when they need to get it going.”

I did take awhile for the Panthers to get it going and Kim let them know as much after the game.

Locked In appeared in full control after striking for three runs in the first inning and two in the top of the third to take a 5-0 lead. Hager delivered the big hit in the first inning, sending a blooper inside the foul line in shallow right field that went for a two-run triple. Conor Watson had scored earlier on a balk. Bridgewater starter Ethan Leon walked the first three batters of the game to get himself in deep.

Danny Smith of the Panthers gets secondary lead during a rally against Locked In Expos. Ryan O’Rourke holds the runner on.

But lefty Leon nearly extricated himself without major damage when he struck out the next two batters. Hager’s bloop hit, however, put the Expos in charge.

Watson and John DePalma walked to lead off the third and Trey Davis and Ryan O’Rourke followed with RBI singles to lift the Expos’ advantage to 5-0. But Bridgewater would begin its comeback in the bottom of the inning.

Cabatu, who would get the victory in relief, beat out a dribbler down the third base line leading off the third. Lu reached on a misplayed bunt as Cabatu raced all the way to third base. Lu stole second with Smith at the plate before the Panthers’ shortstop threaded a single through the middle to score Cabatu with Bridgewater’s first run of the game. Matheson (1-for-1, 2 RBI), who singled in his first at bat, lifted a deep shot to right field that easily scored Lu from third and shaved the Locked In lead to 5-2.

Cabatu closed out the Panthers’ win with three scoreless innings of relief. He permitted three hits, struck out four and walked none.

“We rely on our good pitching and fielding and work off that good feeling,” said Kim. “We had a bad start today and we know we can’t do that at Diamond Nation. The competition is too tough.”

Bridgewater will get a chance to jump out to a better start in the early going when it meets the rugged South Jersey Young Guns in a 9:50 a.m. start on Tuesday at Jack Cust Baseball Academy. Locked In Expos, meanwhile, had a second game on Monday as they opposed the D1 Renegades at Raritan Valley Community College at 12:15 p.m.

The 15U DN World Series runs through Thursday as each team plays four games. There is no playoff round this week. The Super 17U World Series also runs Monday-through-Thursday at Diamond Nation with the same parameters.

Opener Round-up: The rest of the season openers at Diamond Nation this morning saw the Mid-Atlantic Red Sox edge the Staten Island Orioles, 7-6, Full Count Prospects 2023 defeat West Chester Dragons, 4-0, Northeast Expos 15U cruise past North Jersey Cardinals Black, 8-0, and All-In Baseball knock off Baseball Warehouse 2023, 5-0.

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