Yard Goats graze on MCBL Knights, Mid-Summer Classic

By DN WRITING STAFF | July 18, 2022

Joe Sanchez ripped a double for the Warehouse Yard Goats during 16U Mid-Summer Classic.

By Rich Bevensee

Even when they don’t have their best weapons working, pitchers John Risley and Danny Kirk agree that you stick with what you have and hope for the best.

That attitude carried the day for both hurlers and Warehouse Yard Goats Purple in a 16U Mid-Summer Classic pool play-concluding contest on Sunday evening at Diamond Nation in Flemington.

The 16U Mid-Summer Classic was a showcase-only tournament, so there were no playoffs.

Risley started and pitched three scoreless innings without a feel for any of his four pitches, while Kirk walked the highwire for the final two innings and stranded the tying run in scoring position both innings for the Yard Goats, who squeaked out a 5-4 victory over the MCBL Knights. 

Of the Yard Goats’ three pitchers, Kirk found himself in the toughest situations Sunday, considering he had to escape jams in the final two innings with the potential tying and winning runs on base. 

“I really just tried to battle with what I had,” said Kirk, a rising junior at South Brunswick, who throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a curveball, a cutter and changeup. “I didn’t really have all my stuff but I battled and hit spots the best I could. I tried to get ground balls because I didn’t want them to hit it to the outfield where it would be a close play at the plate.”

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Kirk came on in relief of Ryan Leyner with two outs and the tying and winning runs in scoring position. After hitting the first batter to load the bases, Kirk got the next Knight to strike out looking.

“I was looking for a strikeout there,” Kirk said. “I wanted to get him looking because I knew he wasn’t really swinging either. I wanted to hit the outside half.”

In the seventh, Kirk waded in and out of trouble. After inducing the leadoff batter to ground out back to the mound, he walked two batters, picked off a runner at first, then walked the next batter while D.J. Lugo stood at third base representing the tying run after advancing two bases on wild pitches. Kirk then got Bobby Kuenzler to ground out to second to end the game.

“I was actually a little bit nervous at that time because I didn’t have my stuff going for me,” Kirk said. “But I like the adrenaline I get when I come into the game in a situation like that. It helps me pitch better. I like throwing as hard as I can for one or two innings. I like closing.”

D.J. Lugo of the MCBL Knights gets set to take a rip in 16U Mid-Summer Classic on Sunday.

The Yard Goats, who have elevated their play significantly this summer – reaching two USABL tournament championship games, and winning their pool by going 4-0 and then beating Tri-State Arsenal N.Y. in the pool final in a Boston-area showcase last week – left Diamond Nation with a 2-1 record in the Classic.

Yard Goats coach Ken Smith said he liked Kirk’s chances of getting out of trouble because of his experience in big situations. Kirk started in both of his team’s USABL finals. 

“He just battled,” Smith said of Kirk, who walked three, hit one batter and struck out three in 1⅓ innings. “I put him in a tough spot but he’s a tough kid and he just battled. He kept competing and making pitches. That’s the thing I try to get across to all these guys is just compete. No matter what’s going on in the game you have to keep competing because in baseball you have to outlast the other guy.”

Risley, a rising junior at St. Joseph of Metuchen, didn’t face quite the nail-biting situations Kirk did. In fact, he was near perfect. He faced the minimum nine batters over three innings. He gave up a hit to Vinny Stigliano in the third but Goats catcher Joe Sanchez threw him out at second attempting to steal. 

And yet, Risley accomplished his nine-up and nine-down outing without the benefit of having a feel for any of his pitches – four-seam, two-seam, curve and change. 

“Nothing felt good today,” Risley said. “I couldn’t spot the fastball well and the two-seam wasn’t there. The curve was working here and there, and the change, not there at all. I didn’t feel good after the first inning so I washed my hands and felt a little better after that.”

“I try to find the one thing that is working and try to use it as much as I can,” Risley said. “I was throwing mostly curveballs tonight. It’s a good thing, because I have a good connection with my catcher (Sanchez). He knows what’s going on and it almost always works out.”

Yard Goats coach Ken Smith said Risley’s pitching was a key to the Yard Goats going 4-0 in pool play and advancing into the playoffs at a showcase in Boston last week. 

“John knows who he is,” Smith said. “He knows he doesn’t throw overly hard so he pitches to contact, but when he hits his corners and hits the knees and gets you off balance, he can sneak that fastball by you. He’s going to get weak contact.”

While Risley was working his magic in the first three innings, his teammates provided some cushioning in the second, sending 10 batters to the plate and scoring four runs on two hits, two errors and three walks against Knights starter Ryan Devlin.

Sanchez ripped a bases-loaded, one-out line drive right at short which was dropped and Jackson Fong scored and the bases remained loaded. Will Kwiatkowski walked to force in a run, leadoff man Drew Mennona looped an RBI single into right field, and Lucas Weiss drove in a fourth run on a fielder’s choice.

The Yard Goats extended their lead to 5-0 in the top of the fourth when D.J. Lugo came on for the Knights to relieve Devlin, and Mennona greeted him by driving home a run with a bases-loaded fielder’s choice.

Lugo’s timing could not have been better at that point. With Mennona attempting to steal second, Lugo wheeled and threw to shortstop Orbe, who immediately fired home to nab Sanchez trying to score. 

The Knights began chipping away against Leyner in the bottom of the fourth inning when Tyler Mertz forced home a run after getting hit by a pitch. With two out Leyner picked Adrian Orbe off at second, but Danny McClanahan scored from third before the Yard Goats could tag Orbe. 

The Knights continued to make their comeback in the sixth when Orbe and Jack Nesland rapped consecutive RBI singles, bringing them to within a run.

It was then that Kirk relieved Leyner and retired the side. 

Leyner allowed four runs on four hits and three walks with a strikeout in 2⅔ innings. 

Lugo was terrific in relief for the Knights. After allowing that fielder’s choice RBI groundout to Mennona, he did not allow another Yard Goat to reach safely. He pitched three perfect innings and struck out six. 

Devlin was charged with five runs (three earned) on three hits and six walks. 

Like the Yard Goats, the Knights left the Mid-Summer Classic with a 2-1 record. On Saturday, they wiped out Complete Game Colonials Red, 8-1, and slipped past ASBA Futures Navy, 7-4.

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