Michael Villani steals third base for Sportika Baseball 17U Red.
By Sean Reilly
When Sportika Baseball 17U Red played South Jersey Young Guns 2024 on Thursday morning at Diamond Nation, every player in the game was a rising senior except for one.
That outlier was Kevin Rusinak, the starting pitcher for Sportika who just completed his sophomore year at Manalapan High School.
If the right-hander drew attention at first for his age, it was his ability that garnered the most attention at the end, after he threw 5⅓ scoreless innings against a powerful opponent in what wound up as a seven-inning, 0-0 tie at the 17/18U Blue Chip Prospects tournament, powered by Victus, in Flemington.
There have been several hundred 17/18U wood bat games this summer at ‘The Nation,’ and this was only the second of those to end scoreless.
Rusinak and reliever Hoyt Smith blanked a Young Guns team that ended 3-0-1 on the week, after previously going 4-0 at the Super 17 Invitational in June, a showing which clinched a berth in the upcoming Super 17 Top 25 Tournament.
Rusinak allowed five hits while striking out nine and walking four.
“My fastball was working, for sure,” Rusinak said. “I just had to pound the zone and trust the defense.”
His teammates were worthy of that faith. Rusinak was boosted by a defense that turned a 4-6-3 double play in the second, while catcher Joshua Hernandez threw out one runner stealing second and picked off another at first. There was also a scrambling catch near the right field line by second baseman Antonio DiMaggio for the third out with runners on first and second in the fifth.
Sportika’s James Michko takes throw from shortstop Michael Avino to complete double play.
“We have a great defense,” Rusinak said. “I just had to do whatever I could to help my team out.”
The performance, which came in front of numerous college coaches, including several from Division 1 schools, continued what’s been a strong year going back to a high school season in which he overcame an injury at the start.
“I’m used to playing up,” he said. “I’ve been doing it pretty much my whole life. In high school, I started the season off with a back injury and then I came back in, I did my job trying to help my team. This has been a good summer. I just have to keep progressing. I think I have a projectable arm, I just have to keep working hard and doing my job.”
The Young Guns, who got two hits apiece from leadoff man Bruce Parker, No. 5 hitter Josh Herner and 10th batter Nikhilesh Mehta, had runners on first and second with two out in the fourth when Hernandez picked off the trail runner at first.
The Young Guns also had runners on first and second with two out in the fifth when DiMaggio ranged into shallow right field to make his sprawling catch for the third out.
Parker’s second single put runners on first and second with one out in the sixth, which resulted in the pitching change. Smith followed with a strikeout and ground out to shortstop to keep the game scoreless.
In the top of the seventh, a single by Herner and an error put runners on first and third with one out, but a pitcher-to-first ground out and pop out to shortstop (with the runners having advanced to second and third) kept the Young Guns off the board.
Sportika, which finished the tournament 1-2-1, had its own difficult assignment going against Young Guns starter Ben Hudson, a rising senior from Shawnee High School who recently committed to West Virginia.
Hudson pitched the first three innings, allowing one hit with six strikeouts and two walks.
Herner threw the next three innings, allowing one hit with one strikeout and one walk.
Tommy Popoff then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh to close out the tie game.
“My curveball felt way better today, I thought it was spinning good out of my hand. I kept them off-balance with that,” Herner said. “A game like this, pitching-wise you have to do whatever you can to keep your team in the game. It’s been a fun summer. I’ve been with a lot of these guys for half of my life, so it’s been a lot of fun with that.”
Paul Santos and Hernandez each singled for Sportika.