River Rats pitcher Elijah Greenleaf tags out the Ballers’ Dean Sewall at home.
By Rich Bevensee
There was no way for Colton Lawrence to know his Southern Maine River Rats would open pool play by getting locked in a pitcher’s duel in the 17/18 Blue Chip Prospects Powered By Victus tournament.
But as luck would have it, he had Brock Gibbons and Elijah Greenleaf lined up for pitching duty, and they were absolutely the right men for the job.
Gibbons battled through four innings with men in scoring position at every turn, and Greenleaf escaped from one of the tightest spots a reliever could experience.
Together they carried the River Rats – who made their first eight-hour trek south from Saco, Maine, to Diamond Nation in Flemington – to a 3-2 six-inning pool play victory over TBT Ballers Black on Monday evening.
The Ballers, which also received terrific pitching performances from Sean Asendorf and Sean Gallagher, got the tying run aboard in the bottom of the sixth before Greenleaf retired the side.
“They got into some tough situations and controlled the game,” Lawrence said. “It seemed like the ump got a little tight with the strike zone and when that happens usually guys lose their composure, but both of those guys got after it. They made pitches in tough spots and it was fun to watch.”
It was a white-knuckle ride for both parties. The lead changed hands twice and neither team led by more than one run, which made every at bat of every inning seem to carry the greatest importance.
As a testament to all four pitchers, nine base runners were left stranded in scoring position in the game, and three times that happened with an inning-ending strikeout.
Gibbons, a rising junior lefty at Lake Region High in Naples, Maine, was making his first pitching appearance since slicing open the thumb on his pitching hand while helping his father lift a refrigerator two weeks ago. Gibbons lasted four innings and surrendered just two runs on four hits. He struck out six and pitched gamely around seven walks.
“I know I’ve got the guys behind me that I know are going to make plays,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think about men on base. You just have to make pitches. Then Eli came in and he was dealing. He really had his stuff.”
The key point in the game was also the most suspenseful situation for the River Rats. Jake Spindler came to the plate after the Ballers loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the fifth, after walks to Dean Sewall and Anthony DeCesare sandwiched a Hunter Stuart double.
Greenleaf uncorked a wild pitch and immediately charged home as catcher Bryden Marcotte retrieved the ball from the backstop. He flipped back to Greenleaf at home to make the tag on Sewall just in time at the plate.
“Being in those situations can be a little nerve racking at first, but once you get in a rhythm you kind of forget about it,” Greenleaf said. “I enjoy it because if the outcome is right, you feel really good afterwards. I’ve been on the other side of it and it doesn’t feel very good.
Ballers’ right fielder Lucas Silva had a two-run single in the first inning.
“I think of myself as a reliever more than a starter, because I come into the game with the mindset of, I need to get this done. I can’t let the team down.”
Greenleaf, a rising senior righty at Massabesic High in Waterboro, Maine, navigated two scoreless innings and allowed two hits and one walk with three strikeouts.
Greenleaf wasn’t quite done dancing around fire after the fifth. He allowed the tying run to reach in the sixth after Lucas Silva singled to center with one out. Greenleaf got a strikeout and a fly ball to close the door on the Ballers.
“Eli came in and competed against a lineup that is very good – big bats, big swings – and mixed pitches well and kept them off balance,” Lawrence said. “Late in the game it got intense and he held his composure.”
The River Rats struck first with two outs in the top of the first inning. Gibbons, who reached on an error, broke for second and Caleb Vacchiano scored from third on the throw.
The Ballers answered immediately with two runs in the bottom of the first. Michael Traina walked and DeCesare singled before Silva drove them both in with a single to center for a 2-1 lead.
In the top of the third, Ballers center fielder Spencer Freer turned in one of the most sensational catches this writer has ever seen at Diamond Nation.
The River Rats had a runner in scoring position with one out after Marcotte walked and stole second. Leadoff hitter Cole Whitehead blasted a shot to deep left center which was destined for extra bases, but Freer made a sprawling, acrobatic catch on his belly. Marcotte, who had already rounded third, was clearly stunned, and Freer threw to second to complete an unlikely double play.
The Ballers would have no such luck in the fourth, as the River Rats picked up two runs for a 3-2 lead. A Vacchiano walk was followed by RBI doubles by Gibbons and Jacob Fish. Fish’s ball actually looked like it was headed over the right field fence but hit high on the wall just a foot short.
The Ballers’ pitchers performed exceptionally in their own right. Asendorf pitched four innings and yielded three runs on three hits and three walks with three strikeouts. Gallagher entered in the fifth and pitched two scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out five.
The River Rats are back at it on Tuesday when they take on Body Armor Titans 2025. They’ll play Complete Performance Baseball Academy 17U White on Wednesday, and Time To Sign Prime on Thursday. All three games are at 4:30 p.m.
The Ballers, based in Congers, N.Y., continue pool play Tuesday with a game against the Hayner Academy Barnstormers at 2:15 p.m. They play Complete Performance Baseball Academy 17U on Wednesday at 12:15 p.m., and Wladyka National on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.
NOTES: The Ballers’ Sewall, a rising senior at Walter Panas High in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., was a high school teammate of shortstop Sammy Stafura, a Clemson commit who was drafted in the second round of the MLB draft and 47th overall by the Cincinnati Reds.
Freer, who made that ridiculous catch in center field, led his school, Wallkill High, to the New York Class A regional final where it lost to Walter Panas in 10 innings.