By Rich Bevensee
Without question, the Gray Bracket championship game in the 16U Blue Chip Prospects showcase was going to be a test of mettle and resilience for the Long Island Body Armor Titans.
Due to a pitching shortage, Dalton Rutt was pressed into the title game assignment less than 24 hours after struggling through a shaky one-inning relief appearance.
A teammate’s injury meant Luke Ciminiello would be asked to strap on the catcher’s gear and summon the strength to call his fourth game in two days.
And due to a monstrously busy schedule – the Titans were playing their 13th game in the last 10 days – coach Kevin Schnupp hoped his players had enough gas in the tank to make one more charge before releasing them for the remainder of the summer.
To say the Titans exceeded expectations, including their own, would be an understatement.
Rutt commanded his four pitches well enough to scatter six hits, and Ciminiello called his third one-run game in his last four and drove in three runs. That was all the impetus the battle-weary Titans would need.
With Rutt and Ciminiello leading the way, the Long Island-based club captured its second title in as many weeks when it quieted an offensively-talented 9ers Baseball Club in a 5-1 decision on Friday at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
“It’s been a grind, but any chance I get to play with the boys it’s always fun, and I’m feeling great right now,” said Ciminiello, named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “My legs are shot, but you know what? It doesn’t matter because we got the win.”
The Titans’ road to the title included three games in which they allowed one run. They beat Diamond Jacks Gold 16U, 19-8, lost to the Taconic Rangers (who opted out of the playoffs), 8-1, then defeated Wave Baseball and AAE Baseball Club by identical 2-1 scores on Thursday, setting them up for the fourth seed in the Gray Bracket playoffs.
Earlier on Friday, the Titans rallied for seven runs in the fifth inning to come from behind and knock out the top-seeded Diamond Jacks Super 16U, 14-9, in the semifinals.
Coming into Diamond Nation’s 16U Blue Chip Prospects showcase, the Titans were coming off a successful Midwestern trip, winning five of seven games in a five-day span and claiming the Gold Bracket title in the Cincinnati Flames Tournament.
“We all came in Sunday or Monday from Cincinnati and got here Tuesday so we were already beat up,” Schnupp said. “We’ve got some guys injured, some guys are worn out, and pitching didn’t go the way we wanted early on. So we had to reboot some guys and the kids came out playing sharp. They’re a tough group. They have some goals and some aspirations, and they play for each other, so they really grinded and stepped up in big spots.”
One of the Titans’ toughest competitors was Ciminiello, who was catching his fourth game in two days because teammate and catcher Kevin Schnupp, the coach’s son, was struck on the elbow by a ball in Wednesday’s game against Taconic. Ciminiello said he and Schnupp have shared duties for most of the summer.
“Actually I was feeling great coming into today,” said Ciminiello, a 6-foot, 165-pound rising junior at Smithtown East High in St. James, N.Y. “I caught a doubleheader the night before but I still felt great. I did some recovery stuff – foam rolling, cold shower, a little bit of walking on a treadmill, and a lot of hydration.”
“For him to sit there and not complain, wow, he really took care of business this week,” Schnupp said.
Behind the plate or at bat, Ciminiello certainly didn’t appear to be suffering any fatigue, and his efforts made it unanimous in the Long Island dugout who their MVP would be. He fueled the Titans’ top half of the first inning with a two-out, two-run infield single which scored Jack Fanning and Noel Rivera. He delivered a sacrifice fly RBI in the fourth inning, and he reached on an error and scored in the seventh inning.
“(The MVP award) is a reflection of the team really,” Ciminiello said. “We had a good weekend and most importantly we got the win. I think coming in here after Cincinnati and winning this tournament shows our toughness. We played a lot of baseball this past week but we love it so the energy’s always gonna be there.”
Rutt, who was equally terrific in the final, was probably harder on himself than anyone else for his performance on the mound the night before. He pitched a scoreless inning to get the save but called his effort “shaky” because his command was off.
“Yesterday I was a little more nervous because I came into the game in a big spot. We were up 2-1,” Rutt said. “I had a clean inning but I was over-throwing – I hit two kids, which is unlike me.”
The 6-foot, 160-pound right-hander corrected whatever soured his self-analysis from the night before. Rutt’s marvelous complete-game performance included one earned run on six hits and two walks with five strikeouts.
“He was going inning by inning because he pitched earlier this week and yesterday,” Schnupp said. “As long as he felt good we were going to let him go today.”
“Today I pitched free and easy,” Rutt said. “Last night I was a little shaky, but I came out today knowing we were short on pitchers and I had to do my job and help the team, and so I went seven innings. I had a good sleep and came to the field with a different mentality and put my best foot forward.”
Rutt, a rising junior at Ward Melville in East Setauket, gave up a run in the first inning and followed that with six scoreless frames thanks to four-seam and two seam fastballs, a curve with a knuckle grip and a changeup. After the first inning, not a single 9ers baserunner reached second base.
“Dalton was amazing today, probably the best of this year,” Ciminiello said. “He had some confidence out there, throwing 3-2 breaking balls and had a bunch of Ks. He threw well out there. He had very good command of his curveball and threw his two-seam very well. He was hitting his spots and when he had to toughen up he did and got some big outs.”
“My curve was good today,” Rutt said. “It was a little slower today; it’s usually faster, but I was able to spot it and throw it in some key counts where they weren’t expecting it and got a couple freezes. And I know I can trust my catcher and my fielders behind me, so I’m just going to pound the zone and see what I can do.”
Rutt was adamant in thanking his defense, especially Rivera who was scintillating at third base. Not only did he double, walk and score twice, Rivera was also the author of one highlight play after the next. His best came in the bottom of the first with 9ers runners on first and second and no out. He made a diving stab of a Rory Finn grounder, stepped on third for the force and fired a frozen rope to first for the double play.
That play limited the damage 9ers Baseball inflicted, as they managed just one run on a Jake Howlett RBI triple. On that play, Titans center fielder John Harrington seemed to park himself under a routine fly ball, only to suddenly retreat to the fence after the wind took hold of it. Braden Walsh scored on the play to cut the 9ers deficit in half at 2-1.
In the top half of the first, the Titans took a 2-0 lead against 9ers starter Nick Garboosian when their first three batters reached base. Leadoff man Nick Zampieron singled but got picked off by catcher Howlett. Fanning tripled and Rivera walked before Ciminiello drove a grounder into the hole at short to plate both runners.
The Titans added an insurance run in the fourth when Rivera doubled, advanced on a grounder and scored on Ciminiello’s one-out sac fly.
In the seventh, Ciminiello sparked the rally by reaching on an error. Peter Beisel singled, and after both runners advanced a base on a wild pitch, Harrington chased them both home with a single up the middle.
Garboosian’s line was 3⅔ innings, three runs allowed on six hits and two walks with three strikeouts. E.J. Stefanelli pitched 2⅔ innings and permitted one unearned run with no hits and no walks and two strikeouts. Walsh pitched the final ⅔ of an inning and allowed one earned run on two hits.
The 9ers entered the Gray Bracket playoffs as the second seed after going 3-1 in pool play. They slipped past the Heavy Hitters, 1-0, beat the EEP Bandits 2024 Scout Team, 9-1, and mercy-ruled the Southern Maine River Rats Prospects, 17-2, before bowing to the Diamond Jacks Super 16U, 4-0.
The 9ers defeated the Titans’ younger squad, Long Island Body Armor Titans 15U, by a 5-3 count to reach the final against Titans 16U.
Titans sizzle in the Queen City
A week before the Titans 16U squad made its triumphant run at Diamond Nation, the club went 2-2 in pool play in the Cincinnati Flames tournament Aug. 3-7. The Titans beat Prospects Xposure of Illinois, 8-7, lost to Baseball U PA, 2-1, lost to T3 Warhawks of Ohio, 11-7, and defeated U.S. Elite American of New Jersey, 4-0.
They were designated the 29th overall wild card and placed in the gold bracket, where they defeated the New England Ruffnecks, 6-1, and the Northeast Pride Underclass Scout Team, 3-2, before edging Nebraska Prospects Scout, 1-0, in the final.