NJ Nationals’ Ryan Probst knocks in the tying run in the top of the seventh inning.
By Rich Bevensee
When top-shelf competitors like Ian Libby and Amir Stewart go head to head, matching Ks in the scorebook and zeroes on the scoreboard, the interesting thing to watch for is who blinks first.
In this case, neither one did, and it made for one terrific pitcher’s duel in the second week of the Super 17 Invitational on Tuesday evening at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
Libby, hurling for Maine Lightning Showcase, struck out 12 in six shutout innings while yielding one hit and no walks. Stewart, of New Jersey Nationals 18U, countered with nine whiffs in five innings and yielded no earned runs on three hits and two walks.
The Lightning and Nationals finished in a 1-1 tie after the Nats’ Ryan Probst laced a two-out RBI single into center in the top of the seventh inning off Lightning reliever Sam Seavey, and Nats reliever Freddie Berger struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh.
Libby needed just 71 pitches – 52 for strikes – to work his way through the Nationals lineup, one batter over the minimum, utilizing chiefly a two-seam fastball which hovered in the low 80s and topped out at 82 mph, as well as a knuckle-curve. He reached three balls in a count just once, and struck out the side twice.
“His efficiency makes it really easy for me as a coach when I can sit there and watch him do his thing, and not worry about getting guys into the pen, moving guys around,” Maine coach Grayson Beressi said. “He made my job easy tonight.”
Libby, a 6-6, 190-pound rising senior at Gray-New Gloucester High School in Gray, Maine, enjoyed a solid prep season, pitching to a 1.50 ERA with 55 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 46 innings.
Clearly he’s carried over that efficiency into the summer club season. The only time Libby allowed a Nationals base runner, he left him stranded at third in the top of the fifth inning when he got – what else? – a strikeout to end the threat.
“I try to keep it as cool as possible, an even slate throughout the game,” Libby said.
Libby split his strikeouts evenly, in fact, getting half with his fastball and half with his knuckle-curve.
“They play off each other, so the two seam runs into righties and curveball runs away from them,” Libby said. “It’s all situational. I feel comfortable throwing all my pitches in any count. I don’t have one I heavily rely on, but the curveball was coming off my fingers better than it has been lately, definitely a plus there. I’m just comfortable throwing any pitch in any count so I know I can climb right in.”
The two right-handed aces matched zeroes for four innings before the Lightning scratched Stewart for an unearned run in the bottom of the fourth.
“I just had to lock in and keep going,” Stewart said. “I liked the challenge (of trying to match Libby) because it’s fun.”
Stewart, a 5-9, 160-pound rising senior at West Orange High School (and also the football team’s starting quarterback), pitched with fair success in the spring, chalking up a 4.38 ERA with 34 strikeouts and 14 walks in 24 innings.
On Tuesday, however, one could say that Stewart was nearly as phenomenal as Libby while employing his two-seam fastball, curve and slider. He just had to work a bit harder to erase Lightning hitters.
Stewart threw 95 pitches over five innings, he worked to a full count five times and permitted seven Lightning base runners.
“I was throwing a lot of two-seam fastballs. My two-seam felt good, it had a lot of break on lefty batters,” Stewart said. “My slider was moving good, too.”
“Amir came to the park with a certain mentality,” Nationals coach Jay Tiseo said. “He had the long sleeves on and it put him in a different zone, ready to pitch, and he went out there and locked in. He competed every pitch, and even though he went deep in the counts we were confident he would get that out pitch.”
Both runs in the game were unearned, ironic but perhaps fitting for such a wonderful pitching performance from either side. The Lightning struck first in the fourth inning when Mason Rang reached on a fielding error, stole second, and scored on Michael Dymkoski’s two-out, sinking liner to left.
With Sam Seavey relieving Libby for the seventh inning, the Nationals pounced. C.J. Georgiou walked, advanced to third on a two-out infield error and scored when Kevin Probst (Seton Hall Prep) rapped a single to center.
Seavey’s final line was one unearned run on one hit, one walk and two strikeouts.
The Nationals’ Berger (Seton Hall Prep) came on in the sixth and struck out all six batters he faced.
The game was a nice bounce-back performance for Maine, which opened its week at the Nation with a 14-0 loss to Long Island Titans Page, then split its Monday doubleheader, slipping past ASBA Futures 2023 Navy 5-1. The Lightning will resume action with a game Wednesday against Wladyka Baseball Blue at 6:30 p.m., and on Thursday against Ascent 2023 at 12:15 p.m.
Tuesday’s 1-1 tie was the second straight deadlock this week for the Nationals, who fought Long Island Titans Page to a 4-4 draw on Monday. The Nationals continue their tournament schedule on Wednesday against ASBA Futures 2023 Navy at 6:30 p.m., they’ll face Wladyka Baseball Blue on Thursday at 4:30 p.m., and play Ascent 2023 on Friday at 8 a.m.