When Anthony Aldridge came in to close out the final three innings of Saturday's game for the St. Louis Gamers, he had a double-edged game plan.
Aldridge understood the strike zone was trending in the low side; that was no big deal, just part of the reality of their Omaha SlumpBuster 13u D1 contest against the Texas Marshals in La Vista. So as he worked in that direction, he also noticed that the Marshals were tempted to swing at pitches up in the zone as well.
Able to control his pitches, and his nerves, Aldridge struck out seven batters in those last three frames, helping the Gamers post a 3-2 victory that advances them to Sunday's semifinals against the Utah Yard Dawgs. Max Eastman hit a solo home run for the Gamers, and Andrew Willis drove home two runs with a two-out single in the fourth that pushed the Gamers ahead for good.
"I was preparing myself - those guys are good hitters, and I was preparing to throw low. Just trying to keep them from hitting the ball," said Aldridge, who notched two strikeouts in a row to end the game and moved the ball around with precision. "I throw as hard as I can, and if I miss, I miss. It wasn't easy.
"We've really been hitting - we're never like this. We either hit the ball and don't field, or field it well and can't hit. We got everything together this weekend and want to go deep in the tournament."
The Marshals got two runs from leadoff hitter Mark Spangler; he came across in the third on an error. In the fourth, the Gamers had runners on first and second, but two strikeouts threatened to douse the rally. After a walk loaded the bases, Willis fought through a tough at-bat and dumped a single near the right field line.
"I like to try and picture myself doing it; that gives me confidence. And I try not to think about all the things I need to do in my swing too much, because that gets in my head," Willis said. "You have to have fun and relax. If you get too tense, you start to make errors. Play through it and pick yourself up if you do make an error. Our pitchers did great; they threw strikes and threw hard, and did what they needed to do."
Gamers starter Trenton Cookerly pitched extremely well, stranding a runner on third in his final inning of work. The St. Louis offense left many runners on base, struck out 11 times and ran themselves into a double play in the fifth on a bunt play, but it never seemed to create any friction or irritation.
"You play enough, you go through so much adversity that you get used to it. If he puts the bunt down, we're in great shape there ... they've been in tough spots before and it's not the end of the world if it messes up," said Gamers coach Dan Bishop. "Good games don't come without several that didn't go that way. They've gone through the struggles, and we've had to rebuild them so they understand how to not make one error turn into two. I'm proud of all of them - we develop 14 kids, they've all played about the same amount of time, and I've got four good pitchers to go."
It takes exactly nine players to field an official baseball team, and after an injury in Slammers Armour’s first game of the SlumpBuster, nine equaled the total number of players on head coach Mike Angelini’s roster.
Despite the absence of depth on the Slammers bench, the Colorado natives did not drop a game during pool play. They made quick work of the PTC Aces, 15-1, in the opening round of bracket play and proceeded to cruise past Premier Baseball Futures, 6-0, to earn a spot in the 13u D1 semifinals.
“I think in a weird way, only having nine players motivated these guys,” said Angelini. “These nine have pulled themselves together and really started to believe in each other.”
Slammers started the quarterfinal matchup with two consecutive base hits. Leadoff hitter Eze Rojas utilized his exceptional speed to get from first to third on a Michael Casillas single and then scored the go-ahead run a batter later on a passed ball.
“I’ve never really seen pitching like (Premier) had before,” said Rojas. “It took a couple of adjustments to be able to time my hitting and figure out how aggressive I could be on the bases.”
Casillas, fresh off one of two singles he would deliver for Slammers on the day, took to the hill for the first five innings of the contest. Dominance would be an understatement as Casillas would only surrender four hits, did not give up a walk and struck out 10.
“I didn’t feel like today was going to be a special day,” explained Casillas. “I really have to credit my dad, who helped through the game plan, and my catcher, who was excellent back there today.”
“He didn’t miss with his off-speed,” said Angelini. “When he’s hitting with his off-speed, his fastball becomes unhittable.”
Premier Baseball did its best to hold serve, though. It wasn’t until the fifth inning that Slammers tacked on three more runs to stretch the lead, 4-0.
“I pulled the team together and challenged them to swing the sticks,” Angelini said. “I told them Michael was pitching a gem of a game and it was their time to go out and support his effort. To their credit, they all responded exactly the way I was hoping.”
Two more runs coming across in the top of the sixth inning allowed Angelini to send Brooks Rodarte to the mound to close out the game. Though Rodarte didn’t have the number of innings to equal Casillas’ double-digit strikeouts, he did tally four of his own and even let the Slammers defense make a play or two.
“We always have to be ready,” said Rojas. “No matter who is pitching, I think we were all prepared to make a play”
Rodarte’s final strikeout not only solidified a tidy 6-0 win over an impressive Texas-based team but also vaulted Slammers into the semifinals of the 13u Division I Bracket.
“We’ve never won this thing before,” said Casillas. “It would be an honor and I think a giant accomplishment to come out here and win a title against all these great teams.”
Slammers’ semifinal matchup is slated for 11:15 a.m. on Saturday morning. They’ll face the Texas Oilers, who have also managed the 2018 SlumpBuster without a loss thus far.
“It’s why we come here year after year,” said Angelini. “We welcome the competition and this tournament brings everyone to Omaha. It’s a great time of year and I hope we can end our week on a high note.”
After dropping their first bracket play game in the 11u TCSB Invite, Texas Mizuno knew the road ahead would be long, but they are ready for the challenge.
“Our team is underperforming of what we’re capable of, but that’s what you get when you have to fight your way through the loser’s bracket. The competition has been great out here; this is one of the better run tournaments that we’ve ever been a part of,” said Mizuno head coach Chris Fulbright.
In their second game Friday, Mizuno faced Top Tier American South from Illinois. It was a fierce pitching dual for the first three and a half innings. Top Tier’s pitcher struck out five of the first seven Mizuno batters, forcing them to make adjustments at the plate.
“There was a lot of room on the outside of the plate, so we had to take away that corner and change our approach. We had to make sure we were concentrated on hitting it to right field,” added Fulbright.
Their adjustments paid off in the bottom of the fourth inning as Mizuno drew two walks to put runners on base and then crushed back-to-back triples to deep right field to end the score drought. The team tacked on two more runs in that inning to take a commanding 4-0 lead (the eventual final score) heading into what would be the last frame.
The coach’s son, Cooper Fulbright, pitched a one-hit shutout gem with three K’s.
“Most of the time I just try to stay calm and just simply try to throw strikes and keep my pitches down,” said Cooper. “Then, I have an infield like Nico, my best shortstop, and every time they hit a ball to him I’m so confident he’s gonna make the play.”
Nico Partida played solid defense and was also responsible for sending the outside pitch over the right fielder’s head to score the first run of the game for his team.
“I knew it was going to be a strike and if I knew if I tried to pull it, it wouldn’t work, so I just tried to hit it the other way and it went far,” said Partida. “I was struggling the first few games to get my bat going, but now I feel confident that every time I go to the plate I’m going to do something good.”
On Saturday, Mizuno will face the Twelve Black team that served them their first TCSB bracket play loss. They plan to use their restored confidence and knowledge of their opponent to change the outcome.
“That team is from about 30 minutes from where we’re at in south Houston so we’ve seen them plenty of times this year, we know what they can do and they know what we can do. It’s gonna be a fight tomorrow,” said coach Fulbright.
The 11u TCSB Invite Only bracket play began Friday morning at the Triple Crown SlumpBuster in Omaha, Nebraska. As the day went on the intensity grew alongside the temperature.
The LA Xtreme won their first game of the day, but it was how they ended their day that made waves. The team trailed the Texas-based Twelve Black 5-2 heading into their final frame, but the resilient young roster assembled a comeback to stay undefeated in the tournament and beat Twelve Black, 7-6, in extra innings.
“We lost our pitcher in the first inning with an injury and then had a strange call go against us and all air was just sucked out of us … but you know, we just tell them to keep chipping away, stay positive, stay engaged, stay in the moment and they did that,” said head coach Eric Beckerman.
Xtreme’s bats were solid the entire game; however, in the first few innings against Twelve they weren’t producing with runners in scoring position.
“We’ve been hitting the ball well all tournament long and even when we weren’t scoring we were hitting the ball well just right at them. So we tell them to continue what they’re doing, try to find those holes and hope the baseball Gods are listening,” added Beckerman.
In the home team’s last opportunity they strung together several hits, including a leadoff double that started the rally, followed by a single, walk, sac fly and a huge two-RBI single to tie the game at 5 and send it into extra innings.
With the California tiebreaker rule in place, Twelve put their last out on second and were able to score that runner on a leadoff base hit. Xtreme buckled down and got the next three batters out, 1-2-3.
The Xtreme roster shined in the late pressure situations; Hamilton Friedberg led off the extra inning with a clutch RBI-single to tie up the game once again. Friedberg was a perfect 3-for-3 at the plate with three RBI.
“I hate losing so that’s just me. I was like I don’t wanna lose so let’s get energized and I know we always play better when we’re energized, so I got the team pumped up and then we scored our runs,” said Friedberg.
With a chance to complete the comeback, Jonathan Cardenas stepped up to the plate with confidence and crushed a ball to the right field fence to score Friedberg and secure the win with a walk-off.
“I just wanted to hit it to the outfield so he (Friedberg) could advance to third and the next battle could drive him in, but I wasn’t expecting to hit it that far,” said Cardenas.
Xtreme is now 5-0 at the TC SlumpBuster and will compete in the semi-final round of the 11u TCSB Invite Only Saturday morning.
“We’re battling some sore arms and we don’t want to pitch anyone with a sore arm, so tomorrow we’re relying on our pitching depth that we’ve practiced all year,” said Beckerman.
Prior to the Dallas Raiders loser’s bracket matchup in the 12u TCSB Invite Only Division against Top Tier (Illinois), the Raiders had lost three consecutive one-run contests. Their fourth iteration of down-to-the-wire finishes proved to be the charm Friday as Dallas survived against Top Tier, 5-4.
“We were really able to shut them down with strikeouts,” said head coach Trent Kelley. “In those other games, we let balls get in play which led to errors or more hits. Today, we were able to close them down and keep this thing going.”
Dallas didn’t waste any time drawing first blood. Catcher and clean-up hitter A.J. DeBaolo notched an RBI single to give the Raiders the lead.
In the home half of the first inning, Weston Ballard let Top Tier know he meant business, striking out the first two batters he saw. A pair of walks earned Top Tier runners in scoring position but a big strikeout looking ended the frame, leaving the Raiders unharmed. Ballard would finish with three strong scoreless innings of work and eight strikeouts.
After a quiet second inning, Dallas’ offense re-emerged in the third for four more runs, including a two-RBI single from the Raiders catcher.
“I was seeing a lot of meatballs up there today,” said DeBaolo. “I only had two at-bats and I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste them.”
Top Tier wasn’t about to go down without a fight, and given Dallas’ record in close games, no one could blame them. The Illinois natives fought back with stout defense and two runs in the fourth inning thanks to a two-RBI single from Sam Bruington to pull within three, 5-2.
Meanwhile, Dallas cycled through pitchers before landing on Luke Bajaj who Kelley tasked with closing out the game.
“I wasn’t really feeling nervous out there,” said Bajaj. “I knew I had good teammates behind me that could make plays and an excellent catcher that would guide me through it all.”
Two more runs off an Anthony Holloway single in the final inning let Top Tier creep within the haunting one-run mark. Kelley, trusting in his young pitcher-catcher duo, left Bajaj on the hill with the tying run just 60 feet away at third and the winning tally in scoring position at second. Bajaj came through brilliantly, striking out the final batter and keeping the championship hopes alive for the Raiders.
“I knew he was going to strike him out,” said DeBaolo, who navigated four different pitchers through the contest. “I trust (Luke) to throw strikes and I had a feeling he was going to come through.”
Dallas begins its long march to the championship game in the 12u Invite-Only Division on Saturday morning with a matchup against Colorado Elite at 8 a.m. The Raiders will need to win three contests Saturday and two more Sunday to claim the 2018 crown.
“It’s just a matter keeping focused and having fun,” said Bajaj. “We get to play on new and different fields and face new and different competition. It’s all fun.”
“At the end of the day, we’re still playing ball,” said Kelley. “My motivational speech is pretty easy tomorrow. Do you want to win or do you want to go home?”