Strong pitching, Hoffman defense steer SC Combat 13U

By DN WRITING STAFF | April 28, 2024

Prime’s Nazir Thornton ropes a single into left in the fourth inning.

By Rich Bevensee

Corey Hoffman’s value as a defensive weapon cannot be overstated. That assessment was never more true than in the bottom of the fifth inning of a one-run baseball game on Saturday at Diamond Nation in Flemington.

Hoffman already gunned down two base runners at second from his position behind the plate for the Scanzano Sports Center Combat National A.I. 13U team when he was moved to second base. 

With two out and the tying run at third, Fresh Start Prime’s Michael Stankiewicz drilled a low liner to Hoffman’s right. Playing deep in the hole, Hoffman charged and dropped to his knees just in time to snare the liner and turn a game-tying base hit into the third out.

In a game filled with small triumphs, that play emerged as the one which enabled Combat to escape with a 3-0 victory in seven innings in Williams Harley Davidson pool play at ‘The Nation.’

“I was hoping I could short hop it and throw him out, but it was a last second effort there and I was able to catch it,” Hoffman said. 

Prime was 0-for-2 in steal attempts with Hoffman behind the plate. And in the fourth inning, one inning before his game-saving catch at second, he tagged out a runner at home on a sensational throw from left fielder Joey Antonelli.

“We move Corey all over the place – in the outfield, at second base, behind the plate. He plays everywhere,” Combat coach Jeff Schick said. “He puts in the work and excels at every position we put him in.

“But if I had to pick one position, it’s hard to not say catcher, especially at 13U and because of his ability to throw runners out and control the run game. A 13U game can get out of hand early, so if you have a guy who can shut that down, it’s a weapon for us.”

Hoffman said he relishes the moments when base runners challenge his arm because he feels it’s his best asset as a catcher.

“I know where to set my feet and I’ve been doing it a while,” Hoffman said. “Setting the feet makes your arm stronger and you can throw harder.”

Since pitching goes hand in hand with defense, Combat hurlers Reed Collum and Mike Yankowski were two more big reasons why their team survived this pool play game.

Combat claimed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when Anthony Granese scored from third while Vince Olivo was caught in a rundown between second and third (he was eventually safe at third). 

From there, Collum and Yankowsky shut down the Prime offense on a combined three-hitter. Collum, a crafty lefty who relied on location, went four innings and allowed two hits and three walks and struck out two. Yankowski, a hard-throwing righty who topped out at 72 mph on the radar gun, pitched the last three innings and allowed one hit, his only baserunner, and struck out one.

C.J. Lovelidge, left, congratulates Mike Yankowski for closing the game for SC Combat.

“The name of the game is throwing strikes and especially at this level, really,” Schick said. “Reed came out early and threw a ton of strikes, made them hit it, and we had good defense behind him. Then Mike came in and shut it down. He threw three innings and I don’t know if he even threw 30 pitches. He was really, really good today.”

Combat put more pressure on Prime by scoring a pair of runs in the top of the sixth. Nolan Carter scored from third on a wild pitch and Antonelli added a sacrifice fly to plate C.J. Lovelidge. 

Nazir Thornton, another tall, hard-throwing righty whose fastball reached 74 mph, pitched extremely well for Prime, striking out nine through his 5⅓ innings. He allowed one run through five innings before Combat touched him for two more in the sixth. In total, Thornton surrendered three hits and four walks. Thornton also had one of the three Prime base hits. 

“Winning this game is really big for us because we kept the runs down and it sets us up for a good spot tomorrow,” Hoffman said. 

Combat was to play Double Major Black later on Saturday night, and Out Of The Park Cyclones Futures on Sunday at 2:15 p.m.

FS Prime had another pool play game on Saturday night against the Cyclones, and against Double Major on Sunday at 2:15 p.m.

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