WASHINGTON — Another summer and another DC Grays season in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League has come and gone in the blink of an eye. Beginning in early June, the Grays — which featured eight members from the 2014 Little League World Series, including broadcast intern Mo’ne Davis — completed the CRCL season, nearly missing out on a berth in the League Championship Series.
Despite an up-and-down summer, the Grays defeated the Gaithersburg Giants in a thrilling 11-inning victory during the play-in round, but lost to the eventual league champions, the Bethesda Big Train, in the league semi-final series.
The seven players featured from the 2014 LLWS that suited up for the Grays this summer were Scott Bandura (Princeton), Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond), Kai Cummings (Mount St. Mary’s), Jahli Hendricks (Southern), Joe Richardson (Southern), Brandon Gibbs (Delaware State) and Cam Bufford (Grambling). Every one of the aforementioned players, with the exception of Bufford, played on Davis’ team, the Taney Dragons (Pennsylvania) in 2014.
Three of the former Little League stars, Bufford, Bandura and Sprague-Lott, paced the Grays’ offense in just about every category this summer. Bandura, DC’s center fielder, was the centerpiece of the offense, leading the team in games played (28), batting average (.351), hits (34), RBIs (26), walks (21), and even led the league in stolen bases with 31. Bufford, meanwhile, flexed his muscles and mashed a team-leading seven home runs. And Sprague-Lott, after leading the Atlantic-10 in batting average, hit .284 and drew an absurd 20 walks in 26 games, while moving all around the infield to fill manager Reggie Terry’s needs.
Bufford, a CRCL All-Star, is headed up north to finish the summer out in the Cape Cod League — known as the best summer collegiate baseball league in the country — to play for the Falmouth Commodores. Cooper Vest (BYU) also received an invitation to play in the CCL, but turned it down in order to return home and prepare for the upcoming school year, which begins on Aug. 14, and BYU’s spring season.
Vest, named to the CRCL All-Star Team that lost to Team Israel in an Olympic exhibition, formed a three-headed monster with Tucker Alch (Catholic) and Mike Eggert (Wofford) at the top of the rotation for DC. Vest, Alch and Eggert combined to pitch in 20 games (15 starts) and yield a 1.92 ERA in 70 ⅓ combined innings with 71 strikeouts. Eggert threw five perfect innings against the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts on June 23 before he was pulled and then pitched a five-inning, rain-shorted no-hitter against the South County Braves in his next start on July 3.
Alch led the league in ERA with a 1.82 average in 29 ⅔ innings, but Vest led his squad with a 1.12 mark in 24 innings on the bump. Vest, after completing his true freshman season with the Cougars, had planned to spend his summer at home, but was told by his coaches at BYU to head to Washington a week before the summer season began to pitch. He hit .261 as an outfielder in 27 games with BYU, but wasn’t able to take the bump in the spring because after undergoing an elbow procedure during his senior year of high school.
Both Eggert and Alch were named to the All-Star team, as well as catcher Burke Camper (Towson), reliever Frank Craska (Lafayette), starting pitcher Jake Davidson (Kenyon), left fielder Tanner Sagouspe (Cal Poly), Bandura and Sprague-Lott.
Evan Smith (West Virginia), who joined the Grays after his high school season concluded in mid-June, certainly deserved all-star honors after hitting .345 in 18 games with the Grays. Pat Vandenbergh (Lafayette) and Sam Kaplan (Cornell) also raked for the Grays as everyday players this summer, hitting .325 and .284, respectively. Kaplan lost most of his freshman season and his entire sophomore season due to the Ivy League’s covid-related cancellation, but bounced back well, hitting three homers and driving in 16 runs with the Grays.
The DC Grays are already counting down the days and looking forward to what next summer has in store.
GAITHERSBURG, Md. 一 Some 60 feet and six inches away from a curveball that landed in catcher Burke Camper’s (Towson) glove, was this image of reliever Frank Craska (Lafayette): his head up, strutting off the mound, pounding his right hand into his black Rawlings baseball glove.
A split-second later, the moment broke. Craska finished his walk to the dugout, he high-fived his teammates, and had just saved the DC Grays from a heart-breaking loss in the ninth inning of a do-or-die Cal Ripken Collegiate League play-in game on Saturday night, giving the Grays at least two more games to play this summer.
They defeated the No. 3-seeded Gaithersburg Giants, 4-3 in 11 innings, because the pitching was dominant and the offense clicked. Craska’s all-in effort set the stage for the Grays to steal the win with Cam Bufford’s (Grambling) go-ahead single in the top of the 11th.
With the win, the No. 6-seeded Grays take on the No. 1-seeded Bethesda Big Train in a best-of-three series, beginning Sunday night. But before the Grays could set their minds on playing Bethesda, the question was how long could the Grays depend on their top three arms in an elimination game.
Only three pitchers were listed on the Grays’ lineup card before first pitch at Criswell Automotive Field. First up was Nick Ramanjulu (Towson), who only joined the team two weeks ago. He lived up to the challenge, throwing four innings of one-run ball, yielding five hits and striking out five before the Grays turned to one of their more creative approaches of the season.
Next, they called on Cooper Vest (BYU), who started on the bump on Opening Day for the Grays and was primarily used as a starter throughout the season. They rode his arm to a win against the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts to open the season and were ready to ride it once again with their season on the line, and they needed everything that he had.
He provided that, and more, taking the ball in the fifth inning before emptying the tank in the ninth. He threw four-plus innings and yielded two runs, before Craska took over to finish the job. And he’d given the offense plenty of opportunities to break the game open.
A few days earlier, in case the Grays had lost, Vest booked his plane ticket home back to his home state in Utah for Sunday morning. He had planned to work with BYU’s baseball camps for the rest of the summer until school started back up again in the fall.
But he isn’t thinking about that now. The Grays are now in the chase for the league championship. They’re still alive because of him. Now, he has to delay his flight back home by a few days.
“I don’t want to pitch poorly,” Vest said before trotting out to the mound to begin his outing. “I don’t want to be the reason we lose. I hate losing.”
Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) tied the game at one in the top of the fourth with a double that drove in Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond). Vest entered a half inning later, and was given a 3-1 lead to play with on Robby Wacker’s (Emory) infield single that scored two runs in the sixth.
Vest worked around five hits and two walks before he was pulled with runners on the corners and no outs in the ninth. He surrendered a run on an error in the sixth and then the tying-run in the ninth. The lefty was the Grays’ bulldog on the mound all season long and had simply run out of gas. Realizing Vest gave it his all, manager Reggie Terry signaled for the bullpen’s fireman to put out one last fire in the ninth.
Craska, typically used as a closer, jogged in from the bullpen along the left field foul line and found himself, and DC, in immediate trouble. He intentionally walked the first hitter, allowing for the force play to be set up at home plate with no outs and the infield drawn in. It turns out that Craska didn’t need his defense 一 he did it all himself.
To the first batter he faced, Craska worked into an 0-2 count and fell behind 3-2 a few pitches later. And then, after a few foul balls, Craska struck out Jordan Myers on a high fastball for the first out. He worked another full count to the next hitter before he was hit by a comebacker that he quickly located, throwing the ball to the plate and forcing the second out of the inning. Five pitches later, on a curveball, Craska punched out Jacob Farrar to end the frame, shifting the momentum back to the DC Grays’ dugout.
In the bottom of the 10th, Craska worked around a one-out single and set the final two hitters down, and once more he gave the Grays a shot to take the lead in the top half.
And that’s just what they did when Scott Bandura (Princeton) reached on a walk, swiped second and advanced third on a flyout. He scored on Bufford’s two-out, go-ahead single that snuck over the second baseman’s glove, and gave Craska the confidence to finish out the win in the bottom half of the frame.
A water cooler was dumped on Craska after he recorded the final out as he gazed into the dark sky, knowing that he gave the Grays a chance to play for another few days. And after the Grays didn’t play as well as they hoped in the regular season, Saturday night’s win gave the team the spark it needed for a run at the championship.
The DC Grays take on the Bethesda Big Train at Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda, Maryland on Sunday night in game one of the league semifinals. First pitch is set to be thrown at 7:00 p.m.
The annual regional showcase for Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities (RBI) was held in the national capital area this weekend, and the DC Grays RBI program made its presence felt in all three divisions – Junior Baseball, Senior Baseball and Softball.
Since 2016, DC Grays Baseball (the all-volunteer program that runs the DC Grays summer college team) has run the RBI for Washington, DC in partnership with MLB. DC Grays RBI has baseball and softball programs across all age groups, and all participation is free to all participants. In 2021, DC Grays RBI will serve 230 kids – primarily from Wards 6, 7 and 8.
The MLB RBI Mid-Atlantic regionals were held locally this year, with softball held at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and baseball held at the Academy as well as two parks in Prince George’s County, MD.
The DC Grays RBI Softball team made a terrific showing, going 3-1 in pool play and advancing to the championship game on Sunday morning thanks to some terrific play from Jade Weiggands and Kenadi Burnett. In the final, with a trip to the RBI World Series on the line, the girls were defeated by the perennially powerful Harrisburg RBI by a 9-1 score.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these girls,” said Head Softball Coach Harry Thomas Jr. “They work hard and play the game the right way. They are great representatives of our program.”
The Junior Baseball Team (15U) went 2-2 in pool play, with wins over Philadelphia Phillies RBI and Pittsburg Pirates RBI, who went on to win the championship after advancing to the championship round. The team was paced by the strong all-around play of Marc Harrison Jr and Mark Hughes, both of whom pitched well, played multiple positions and hit the ball hard.
The Senior Baseball team went 1-3 in pool play, with a dominating 14-3 win over Durham Long-Ball RBI and a handful of close losses. The power hitting of Miles Peterson and Devin Gilliam paced DC throughout the weekend.
In a year when several long-time RBI teams like Baltimore Orioles RBI, Reading-Olivet RBI, PG County RBI and Norfolk RBI did not field teams in the tournament, DC Grays RBI once again fielded teams in all three divisions. In just five short years, DC Grays RBI has proven itself to be one of the leading programs in the region. The strength of the organization can be seen by the quality of play on the field, and the expansion of the program overall. Since 2019, DC Grays RBI have added Junior Travel Baseball and Junior Softball programs – allowing more kids 10-12 years old to participate in DC Grays RBI programs.
“We’re building and expanding all the time,” said Head Baseball Coach Brad Burris. “We are reaching to more Little Leagues and offering more and more kids a chance to play ball. It’s exciting to see the growth.”
SOUTH COUNTY, Va. — It was who DC Grays manager Reggie Terry wanted to see step up to the plate in the bottom of the sixth. The South County Braves had already plated two runs in the inning and had battled back from a 9-3 deficit, which followed a Grays offensive outburst that saw them score nine runs across the second, third and fourth frames.
Anthony Steinhardt, who was hitting .214 entering play and hadn’t hit a home run all season, strolled to the plate with a runner on first and two outs in the inning. He watched Joey Craska’s (NJIT) first two pitches miss the strike zone for balls, then watched the third pitch for a strike. On the fourth pitch, he fouled it off down the first base line, leaving him with two strikes, giving the Grays an opportunity to work out of the inning with the score still tied.
But on the fifth pitch, Steinhardt unloaded. He sent Craska’s 2-2 pitch over the right field wall for a two-run homer and broke the back of the Grays’ bullpen once more this season. It’s become a common theme all season for the Grays. That is, jumping out to an early lead, backed by a solid start on the mound, only for the bats to go cold in the late innings and the bullpen to swallow a late lead.
And the losing formula might have stung just a little more in the Grays’ 11-9 loss to South County on Saturday night at South County High School. The pieces were all in place for what could have — should have — been DC’s sixth win in seven tries over the Braves. That was until the lead vanished in the sixth inning.
But the loss can’t be entirely blamed on the bullpen. Aside from the go-ahead homer, Craska was dealing. He came in to clean up a mess that was left by Justin Melton (Emory), who was only pitching in his third game of the season. Melton yielded four runs and only recorded one out in the fifth when Terry turned to Craska.
Before the bullpen surrendered the lead, newcomer Nick Ramanjulu (Towson) started Saturday night’s game on the mound and allowed three runs (two earned) in the first three innings, and the offense gave him — and the rest of the pitching staff — more than enough run support.
Don Freyer (Shorter) made his first start as a position player after pinch-hitting on Thursday night against the T-Bolts. He rewarded Terry immediately, crushing a two-run homer in the second inning. Two innings later, Cam Bufford (Grambling) smacked his team-leading sixth home run over the center field fence. The Grays' offense was on a roll during the first four innings, but following Bufford’s bomb, only two DC hitters reached base over the final five frames.
But with the Grays’ big lead, it gave Terry enough confidence to turn to the bullpen for the final 18 outs. He first made the move to Dylan Seisky (Lafayette), who’s one of the more trusted relievers in the bullpen, but he hadn’t thrown in three-and-a-half weeks. He delivered favorable results in his first appearance in 24 days, working around a hit and a walk in a scoreless fourth inning.
Following the Grays’ third straight three-run inning in the top of the fifth, Terry used some of his younger arms with the sizable lead he had. Melton was the next arm to jog in from the right field bullpen. He walked the first two hitters he faced and then yielded singles to the next two. He followed it up with a strikeout and hit the next batter before Terry motioned for Craska.
Craska began his outing by allowing a lead-off single, but as the runner on first was attempting to go first-to-third on the hit, right fielder Kyle Chmielewski (Lafayette), first baseman Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) and third baseman Robbie Wacker (Emory) teamed up to gun him down at third for the second out. Next, Craska forced Brett Stallings to pop out to shortstop to end the inning.
Four runs crossed the plate fifth, trimming the Grays’ lead to just two runs and it appeared that they were out of the worst of it. Until they took the field in the sixth.
Craska went back out to the mound for his second inning of work and immediately forced the first Brave hitter in the sixth to ground out. He quickly yielded a one-out single to Peyton Thomas, and then the wheels started to fall off. An error on a misplayed fly ball off the bat of Nick Cmeyla allowed Thomas to score and Cmeyla to reach third. Next, Craska induced a ground out to third base that scored Cmeyla, which was then followed with a two-out single.
And then Steinhardt’s blast completed the Braves’ comeback in the seventh, and even though four runs crossed the plate with Craska on the mound, none were charged to him as earned runs while the Grays spiraled toward a group loss.
Craska, and his older brother Frank Craska (Lafayette), quietly pitched the final two innings, before the Grays’ bats went down without a whimper in the ninth.
The Grays travel to Alexandria to take on the Aces on Sunday night as they attempt to right the ship. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. at Frank Mann Field.
GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Jake Davidson (Keyon) looked up, then down at the baseball in his glove, before returning to the mound and shaking his head. The Gaithersburg Giants’ center fielder, Dustin Mercer (Virginia Tech), stood on second base, grinning. Davidson was an out away from working out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the second — an error bent Davidson’s and the DC Grays’ luck to pieces on Wednesday afternoon.
The result, after the Grays had led 3-0 after Scott Bandura’s (Princeton) lead-off home run and a couple more runs crossed the plate soon after, was a 13-3 defeat in the first game of an atypical doubleheader. The Grays lost the second game, too, but that score was much closer, 4-3. After Bandura singled in Kyle Chmielewski (Lafayette) in the top of the second, the Grays were held off the scoreboard for the next 12 innings. The first leg lasted nine innings; the second was seven, the Cal Ripken Collegiate League’s solution to rescheduled games that turn into doubleheaders,
The error that hurt DC in the bottom of the second was the result of a bad baseball decision and play. Davidson loaded the bases with a walk, a single and another single with one out. He forced the next hitter to lineout to left, before Mercer’s single tied the game and a throwing error from first baseman Jared Sprague-Lott allowed the fourth run of the inning to score. Davidson worked out of the inning on the next pitch with another lineout to left field, but the damage had already been done.
The next inning, the bad luck spiraled. Six more runs came across to score, giving the Giants a seven-run lead. And even for an offense, like the Grays, that had scored 16 runs in both Sunday and Monday’s win, was too surmountable to overcome. Seven of the Grays first 12 hitters reached base in the first and second inning.
After that? Seven of their final 27 batters reached base as the timely hits — and hits in general — stopped falling.
The second game began about 45 minutes after the first one ended. The Grays, with a fresh slate, couldn’t take advantage of it. After Bandura led off the game with a walk, he was thrown out attempting to steal second base for the first time in 26 tries this season. A pitch later, Evan Smith (West Virginia) flew out to deep center field to end the inning, continuing the Grays’ evening of bad luck.
Cooper Vest (BYU) was one of the few silver linings all of Wednesday. He received the start, throwing three shutout innings and striking out six in his eighth appearance on the bump. He yielded four hits and worked around a few errors in the second and third innings, stranding the bases loaded in the second and two runners in scoring position in the third. He lowered his season ERA from 0.95 to 0.82 — his first full season back on the mound since he had elbow surgery in high school.
It seemed like the Grays’ luck had turned the corner when Vest departed following his 55 pitches in three innings. In the top of the fourth, Bandura led the inning off with a seven-pitch walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt that Patrick Vandendergh (Lafayette) almost beat out for an infield single. Smith advanced Bandura to third, but couldn’t beat out the ground ball that he hit to second base. Burke Camper (Towson) drew a two-out walk, leaving Cam Bufford (Grambling), who hit a towering home run on Sunday, up with runners on the corners and two outs. But a pitching change, and two pitches later, Bufford flew out to center to end the short-lived rally.
Walks and a base hit burned the Grays in the bottom of the fourth when the Giants put up a four spot in the inning. DC responded two innings later when Ben Nardi (Catholic) scored on Vandenbergh’s sacrifice fly, and Smith drove in Bandura on a groundout to second, trimming the deficit to two.
Frank Craska (Lafayette) trotted in from the bullpen to pitch the fifth and sixth innings, holding the Giants off the scoreboard. And in the seventh, the Grays comeback came up just short when Bufford hit his team-leading fifth home run of the season to lead off the final inning. In the end, the next three hitters went down in a row, dropping the Grays to 10-20 on the season.
The Grays travel to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring Maryland to take on the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts on Thursday night. First pitch is set for 7:00 p.m.
By Chris Hirons
SOUTH COUNTY, Va. — The baseball narrowly nipped Sam Kaplan (Cornell) in the top of the first inning, a few more inches to the right and it’s ball one, but it started a cheer in the DC Grays dugout that didn’t quiet down until night’s end at South County High School on Monday night.
It was the first time Kaplan had been hit-by-a-pitch all season, the first time he had been hit-by-a-pitch at the collegiate level. He trotted down to first, a small victory in itself, and smiled back at DC’s first base dugout. He looked at first base coach Jimmy Williams and laughed. The South County Braves starter looked agitated. A tiebreaking run had come across the plate. And then the runs never stopped coming.
And what unfolded next was the Grays’ best offensive inning all season. It was followed by a 16-2 win, giving the Grays back-to-back victories for the first time all season, as DC defeated South County for the fourth time in five tries.
The Grays would eventually plate eight more runs in the first inning after Kaplan reached base, starting with the hit-by-pitch and ending with Jared Sprague-Lott’s (Richmond) RBI single to right field. Kyle Chmieleski (Lafayette) doubled home a pair of runs. Scott Bandura (Princeton) and Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) drove in a run apiece with singles during the rally. And in the second, the Grays plated four more, followed by three more runs in the top of the sixth. Nine of the 11 position players that appeared in the game picked up a hit. And now, the Grays are 10-18, just a game out of fourth place with seven left to play.
With DC's ace on the mound, the Braves already had a slim margin for error before the first pitch was even thrown. Tucker Alch (Catholic), who paces the league with a 1.82 ERA, cruised through the bottom of the first after he was given a nine-run cushion. He threw 10 pitches and set down the side in order. His offense increased his advantage to 13 by the time he took the mound in the second inning.
“There’s nothing better you could ask for,” Alch said. “We plated nine runs in the first and I went out there and did my job.”
Alch hit a bump — if you even want to call it that — in the second and third innings when he allowed solo homers in both frames. He came into the game with a 1.52 ERA and managed to raise it, even after striking out seven and allowing two runs in six innings.
The right arm of the Division 3 baseball player went to work and shut down the side for the rest of the evening. After he surrendered a single with an out in the third inning, Alch retired the next seven hitters in order when he yielded a two-out single in the fifth. And following that, he set the next three hitters down in order to end his night.
It was another quiet performance from Alch, who overpowered the Braves hitters with his fastball all night long. It was backed by another offensive explosion — the first outburst came Sunday afternoon in a 16-4 mercy rule win over the Alexandria Aces — right out of the gates.
South County starter Brody Mack (William & Mary) struggled with his command from the get-go when he plunked Bandura to lead-off the game. Next, he walked Vandenbergh and Evan Smith (West Virginia), who was named the Cal Ripken Collegiate League Player of the Week on Monday night. Mack bounced back, he struck out Sprague-Lott on seven pitches and had Kaplan on the ropes with an 0-2 count. Mack, a lefty throwing to the right-handed hitting Kaplan, tossed a curveball a little too far inside and hit Kaplan. And that started the offensive onslaught.
He walked two more batters, Alex Rosen (Georgetown) and Ben Avila (Grambling), which scored two more runs. The Braves pulled him before they thought the damage could get any worse.
Spoiler alert: it did.
Joe Alexander (Hood College) came on in relief for Mack and immediately surrendered Chmieleski’s ground-rule double that gave the Grays a five-run lead. And it didn’t stop there, the rally kept going. Cooper Vest (BYU) walked to load the bases once more, Bandura singled to drive in Avila. Vandenbergh beat out an infield single to drive in the seventh run of the inning. Smith reached on a fielder’s choice to extend the lead to eight, and finally, Sprague-Lott singled to right to push the final run of the rally across.
And after the Grays plated another four in the second, there were still five-and-a-half innings to get through. Alch gave up two before the Grays scored another three runs in the sixth and mercy-ruled the Braves in seven innings. But they had done enough in the first to grab control of an otherwise lazy evening. And, to think, it was only a hit-by-pitch that started the rally.
The DC Grays return to action on Wednesday night when they travel to Gaithersburg to face the Giants. First pitch is set for 7:00 p.m.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Joseph O’Connell stood out on the mound in a relief appearance on June 19 against Gaithersburg Giants with two outs in the sixth inning. He looked distraught, eyes wide with a blank stare. He had surrendered a two-run homer seconds before and was charged for his fourth earned run (eight total). The Harvard reliever bounced back to end the frame with a ground ball but as he walked off the mound, nothing seemed to be working for him.
He couldn’t locate his curveball — the pitch that gave him the opportunity to walk-on to Harvard’s baseball team as a freshman during the 2019 season — and had no feel for it. O’Connell, who hits the high-80s and low-90s with his fastball, isn’t able to generate swings-and-misses when he lacks command for his off-speed pitches.
After pitching a scoreless inning on Opening Day against the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts, O’Connell’s next four appearances didn’t go to plan. He yielded a combined 18 earned runs over his next 8 ⅔ innings. He tinkered with his curveball, but ultimately couldn’t find the command for it after throwing off a mound in consistent game action for the first time since March 6, 2020, five days before the Ivy League canceled the rest of the season for all spring sports amid coronavirus concerns.
“I didn’t have confidence in my curveball earlier in the summer season at all,” O’Connell said prior to Friday’s win over the Gaithersburg Giants as the overcast clouds from a downpour began to disperse in time for first pitch. “I was missing high-and-low rather than on the corners. It was tough not having a feel for it, I was pretty discouraged.”
But that was all before a bullpen session with Grays pitching coach Andre Rabouin in between his three-inning, eight-run appearance against the Giants and a 2 ⅓ scoreless inning appearance against the Bethesda Big Train eight days later. Ravouin asked O’Connell if he had ever thought about throwing a slider, and O’Connell said that he used to throw one in high school but moved away from it after he was told he didn’t have the right mechanics.
“In high school, I would drop my elbow down more than I should have when I threw my slider,” O’Connell continued. “So, instead of fixing that, I switched to a curveball since I was able to come over the top with it.”
In relief of Tucker Alch (Catholic), O’Connell finally found the results he had been looking for on June 27 when he kept a one-run lead intact against Bethesda, undoubtedly the league’s leading offense. He struck out two batters and allowed a hit, walking off the mound towards the dugout to end an inning three times with more and more confidence each time.
He’s helped stabilize the bullpen in recent weeks, one was prone to surrendering big leads early on in the season. He and the Grays are finally playing their best baseball of the season — something that didn’t happen when the Ripken league canceled its season in 2020 because of the pandemic.
O’Connell agreed to play for DC last season, but that was before the pandemic, before he knew that the Ivy League would cancel its season in 2021, and before he knew that he would stay in his Nashville, Tenn. home instead of returning to school last year in order to maintain his two years of eligibility.
In order to stay in shape for the summer and Harvard’s 2022 season, O’Connell worked out with some of his friends on the University of Tennessee’s club team. He mainly threw off the flat ground and worked on his pitches in bullpens. Rarely was he up on the mound and throwing to hitters in a simulated game.
Only throwing off flat ground and in a bullpen rather for a year-and-a-half and then trying to emulate that in a live game situation? That’s difficult. In fact, he’s thrown more pitches as a Gray (364) than he has at Harvard (86).
“It was tough throwing off the ground and into a net while [Harvard] couldn’t play any games,” O’Connell said. “The curveball is a feel-pitch for me — and throwing it for a strike this summer after not throwing in a game situation is tough, real tough.”
It took him a while — six games — to find his command, but it’s arriving just in time, right as the Grays and their bullpen are tending in the right direction. And it’s not a coincidence. He’s able to throw a slider on any pitch in any count, and has allowed manager Reggie Terry to take a breath and have more confidence when pulling his starter.
“Having a second pitch is so important,” O’Connell added. “It allows you to mess with someone's timing and gets more swings-and-misses. There’s no better feeling than that.”
Terry has been able to thrust him into more high-leverage situations. Before learning to throw his slider, Terry moved him into a low-leverage role as O’Connell tried to fix his curveball. Ultimately, he wasn’t able to fix it, but now has a new pitch to lean on when Terry calls on him to lead the bullpen down the stretch. And with his slider, he’s able to generate swings-and-misses on his fastball, which he said is always a good feeling.
DC has eight games left on its schedule until the playoffs begin in two weeks, and if the Grays want a chance to play in the semi-final series, then O’Connell’s recent dominance (and new found slider) will need to play a major part in it.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Unpacking what happened at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on Sunday afternoon wouldn’t take a lot of digging. It was a battle that never felt fair and an offensive onslaught that was backed by a dominant pitching performance never put the final score into question.
Nick Ramanjulu (Towson), making his first start for the DC Grays, had been handed his No. 52 Grays home jersey about two hours before first pitch. He took to the bump for the first time since May, and limited an offense that was seeking its eighth win in a row. A lineup that had averaged over eight runs-per-game over the past nine days.
Ramanjulu pitched four innings against the Alexandria Aces and allowed two runs. He set the tone of the gate with a scoreless first inning on the way to the Grays’ 16-4 mercy rule win. He struck out five on 64 pitches. His only blunder: A two-run homer he surrendered in the fourth inning. It wasn’t exactly a spot start, but the Grays desperately needed a solid start from their newest arm with injuries taking their toll on DC’s staff.
Michael Eggert (Wofford) was scratched from his start against the Bethesda Big Train on Saturday night with elbow tightness. In his place, Cody Bosak (Catholic), was given 20 minutes to warm up before the first pitch was set to be thrown. Bosak was on the wrong end of the 10-1 loss in the second game of the doubleheader.
After managing a combined four runs in 16 innings against Bethesda on Saturday night, the Grays nearly matched that total in the first inning on Sunday — then they surpassed it in the third. And with a few early rallies — coming in the first, third, fourth and fifth — the Grays’ offense buried Alexandria from the start. Cam Bufford (Grambling), Burke Camper (Towson) and Sam Kaplan (Cornell) all hit home runs. The Grays leapfrogged the Silver Spring T-Bolts, who lost to the Gaithersburg Giants, for fifth place in the division, and only trail the South County Braves for fourth place by two games. They continued their hot hitting, scoring at least nine runs in three of their last five games.
The Grays (9-18) have eight regular season games left and are shaping up at the right time. Joe Richardson (Southern) and Cooper Vest (BYU) toed the rubber for the first time since dealing with their injury issues earlier this week. The offense is (finally) beginning to pitck up timely, consistent hits with runners on base. And, with Ramanjulu’s solid start on Sunday, the Grays added a new, reliable arm to their pitching staff.
The Grays wrapped up their home schedule on Sunday, but if they get on a roll and win a first-round play-in game, they’ll host at least one more home game in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League semi-finals. But DC wasn’t concerned about it. The Grays are taking it one day at a time.
“The win was big for us,” Camper said after being named DC’s Player of the Game. “We’re just trying to build momentum into the next day and keep going from there.”
And about three hours earlier, the momentum was just beginning to bud. As the balmy summer sun beat down on the turf at the Youth Academy, the offense jumped all over Aces starter Brendan Beaver (Lansing). Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) and Evan Smith (West Virginia) reached on back-to-back one-out singles, and Bufford blasted a no-doubt homer over the left-center field wall in the bottom of the first. It was Bufford’s second home run in three days and he now leads the Grays in home runs with four on the season. His two-for-four day nudged his batting average from .263 to .279.
The offense didn’t stop there, adding four more runs on Camper’s grand slam in the third. He’s at his best when he’s pulling the baseball to the left side of the infield or driving it up the middle, when his head and front shoulder stay pointed to the pitcher, when his weight is balanced and he’s seeking the perfect pitches to hit. And on this particular blast, there was no question that it would leave the yard.
And then the Grays kept adding more runs to the scoreboard. Three more scored in the fourth and fifth. Two more crossed the plate in the seventh, followed by another in the eighth. It was exactly what manager Reggie Terry and the rest of the Grays’ coaching staff had ordered, and gave a trio of pitchers, Ramanjulu, Donovan Freyer (Shorter) and Frank Craska (Lafayette) a yawning lead to protect.
Ramanjulu retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced. The first two hits he yielded came in the fourth — a single and a two-run homer — but retired the next two hitters to end his outing. He threw 37 of his 59 pitches for strikes before he was pulled for the likes of Freyer, who lasted 2 ⅔ innings.
Ramanjulu closed out his outing with a strikeout, electrifying the crowd once more, and was sent out with a small ovation. He earned every single one of those claps on Sunday and stepped up when the Grays needed him the most.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Kai Cummings (Mount St. Mary’s) had been solid — not great — in his 16 ⅔ innings of relief out of the bullpen for the DC Grays this summer before entering in the second inning on Friday night. Manager Reggie Terry has used Cummings in long relief, mainly when the Grays are in the midst of playing five, six or seven consecutive games without an off-day in sight.
On Friday night, he was called into long relief once again. He took over on the bump for Joey Craska (New Jersey Institute of Technology) after Craska’s fastball had run a bit wild. The Grays were down 5-1 to the third-place Gaithersburg Giants, and with no outs and a runner on second, Terry was hoping for Cummings to eat some innings before the Grays’ doubleheader against the Bethesda Big Train Saturday afternoon.
Terry received his wish and more as Cummings rewarded DC with five shutout innings, striking out seven hitters and only allowing three base runners in the Grays’ 13-7 win over the Giants at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. And, because of an offensive explosion for the second game in a row, DC was able to run away with the victory on the back of a seven-run eighth inning.
“The key tonight was just throwing strikes,” Cummings said. “The Giants are a good team and the win puts us in a good position for tomorrow against the Big Train.”
Because of the flurry of runs, the Grays moved to within a game of third place and, if they can keep the hot bats going, should host a playoff game when the Cal Ripken Collegiate League begins postseason play in two weeks.
Two days after scoring nine runs in a loss to the Alexandria Aces, the Grays made sure that this offensive outburst didn’t go to waste. Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) picked up three hits in five at-bats, scoring four runs. Evan Smith (West Virginia) added to his recent offensive tear with a four-hit day and extended his hitting streak to four games. And the victory, like any in a 36-game season sprint, was a small step for Cummings and the rest of his team, who believe that it can compete with anyone on a nightly basis.
“Tonight’s win can go a long way in determining our playoff position,” Cummings continued. “Hopefully we win a few more and can host a playoff game.”
And even though the Grays sit in last place in the league, they believe that they can make some noise once the playoffs roll around. It’s not like they’re less talented than other teams, nine of their 16 losses have come by two runs or fewer. And on Friday, they seemed to have finally seemed to have put a complete game together.
Outside of Craska’s five-run start, the bullpen was just about as flawless as it has been all year. Cummings worked his five shutout innings, Justin Melton (Emory) pitched around two base runners for a scoreless seventh in his first appearance as a member of the Grays. Donavon Freyer (Shorter), who hasn’t allowed a run in three of his four games this season, threw 10 pitches to shut down the Giants in the eighth.
Not only was the bullpen improved on Friday night, but the defense also was too. It didn’t commit a mistake outside of Craska’s error in the second inning and Tanner Sagouspe (Cal Poly) gunned down two runners trying to score on a sacrifice fly at the plate in the first and second inning. Burke Camper (Towson) threw out two would-be base stealers and has nabbed a ridiculous 37.2% of runners this season.
“All I was thinking about was getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible,” Sagouspe said of his double play. “You always have to be ready when the ball is hit in your direction.”
“Those were two perfect throws [from Sagouspe],” Smith added, who was the cut-off man had either of Sagouspe’s throws gone awry. “I just saw the ball go by my face. He has an absolute cannon.”
When Cummings entered in the second, it became a momentum shift as he worked deeper and deeper into his outing. In the third, the Grays had cut the Gaithersburg lead to 5-2 and added another run in the following frame. They chipped away until Sagouspe tied the game with a single up the middle that scored Scott Bandura (Princeton) and Sprague-Lott in the fifth.
Two innings later, DC’s earlier four-run deficit turned into a one-run lead when Smith scored on a wild pitch. And then the offensive floodgates opened in the eighth. Nehemiah Wright (Grambling) scored on a Sprague-Lott single. Sprague-Lott worked his way around the bases and scored on a Sagouspe fielder’s choice. Two more runs scored on a wild pitch. And finally, Jahli Hendricks (Southern) and Bandura capped off the inning with two-out RBI-singles.
The Grays didn’t have to worry about much when their closer Frank Craska (Lafayette) entered the game, protecting an eight-run lead. Even though he surrendered a two-run homer, DC finished out the victory with relative ease. That was a welcomed change.
The DC Grays return to action against the Bethesda Big Train on Saturday afternoon with a doubleheader. First pitch is set for 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
By Chris Hirons
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- When Frank Craska (Lafayette) forced Bobby Zmarzlak to fly out to right field to end the third inning, and a forgettable outing, it took him just under 30 steps to walk from the mound to the first base dugout where he was met with quiet high-fives and fist bumps after tossing his 30th pitch. The DC Grays’ dugout is almost never silent, but after they completed the third inning, not many words were said among the players and coaching staff as DC trailed by 13 runs.
But not many words were needed to be said about the uphill battle the Grays faced.
They could have rolled over. They could have been content with playing until the mercy rule came into effect and ended the team’s night in the seventh inning. They could have packed it up and said ‘we’ll get ‘em tomorrow’.
But they didn’t. They chipped away at a deficit that once seemed too unmanageable to cut into, and brought the score back to within five runs — four if the home plate umpire didn’t botch an out call on a wild pitch — in the eighth inning.
The final score, 16-9 in favor of the Alexandria Aces, was built by an explosive Alexandria offense that had DC on the ropes in just the second inning. Teddy Blumenauer (Towson) appeared in his first game of the summer since joining the Grays just over a week ago. The lefty-specialist for the Tigers started for the first time since April 27 when he pitched an inning in a Towson’s 16-11 loss to La Salle.
On Wednesday, he finished with nine runs (eight earned) on his line. He threw a scoreless first inning before manager Reggie Terry pulled him with an out in the second and Joe Richardson (Southern), pitching for the first time in a month after dealing with an injury, finished the inning out. And then Craska, who has been one of the Grays more reliable relievers this summer, yielded five runs in the third.
The Grays clawed their way back into a game in which they trailed 9-0 and 14-1 in the early innings. DC’s faithful and its dugout fell silent. They yearned for some sort of life to spring out onto the field. And, after a few innings, it did.
The momentum shifted when Joseph O’Connell (Harvard) trotted out from the right field bullpen to the mound to begin the fourth inning. He hadn’t had the brightest of starts to his season, giving up earned runs in four of his first five appearances out of the bullpen. Since, in three of his last four outings, he hasn’t yielded an earned run.
His season turned around, in perhaps his biggest appearance of the year when he held the Bethesda Big Train scoreless in his 2 ⅓ innings of work on June 27, keeping a one-run lead intact.
And on Wednesday, he delivered the same results. The senior reliever, who has yet to throw a pitch for Harvard after the coronavirus canceled the Ivy League’s 2020 and 2021 seasons, threw three scoreless innings, giving the team the confidence it needed to work its way back.
“Earlier in the season I was really struggling with my curveball,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t really have a good feel for it, it had a good break, but I couldn’t throw it for a strike to save my life. Coach Andre [Rabouin] had me switch to a slider and it's been uphill from there.”
The Grays picked up two runs in the fifth inning, beginning with Nehemiah Wright’s (Grambling) one-out double — his second of five hits — and Scott Bandura’s (Princeton) RBI double that drove in Wright for the first run of the inning.
“I had to step back into the batting cages with my dad the other day,” Wright said of his struggles at the plate before his five-hit night. Wright’s father was a former two-way Minor League player. “We worked on standing taller in the box, not being as clenched up. My timing was off, so he had me working on starting slower so I can see the ball for a longer period of time.”
Bandura was on a 1-for-11 slide entering a June 26 matchup against the South County Braves, in which he hit a go-ahead grand slam in the fifth inning. Since then, the Grays’ leading hitter is 14 for his last 26 (.538), raising his average from .289 to .343 in eight games. His three-for-five showing against the Aces has become a common theme night after night in a lineup that has lacked consistency.
“The key to turning [the slump] around was staying positive and trusting myself,” Bandura said. “It happens — especially early in the season. [Princeton] didn’t have a spring season so I knew it was bound to happen, but I knew I was going to turn it around.”
And in the next inning, the Grays tacked on five more runs. Patrick Vandenberg (Lafayette), Cam Bufford (Grambling), Evan Smith (West Virginia), Sam Kaplan (Cornell), Wright and Bandura all recorded hits to close the gap on the scoreboard to six runs.
Bandura scored Cal Rucker (Georgetown) on a single. Vandenbergh plated Wright with a single of his own on a line drive to right field. Smith smashed a double down the right field line that missed clearing the fence by about two feet, scoring Bufford and Vandenbergh. And finally, Kaplan singled on a shallow fly ball to right field that fell between the second baseman and right fielder to tack on the final run.
DC added another in the top of the eighth to tighten the gap to five. A night after the Grays stranded 10 base runners in a 5-3 loss to Bethesda and couldn’t buy a timely hit, they had everything working in their favor on offense Wednesday.
The Aces added two more in the bottom of the eighth, and by that time the Grays’ offense had run out of steam.
It was another one of those nights that the Grays were unable to piece together a winning formula. They’ll have to wait at least one more day to have the chance to connect the dots.
“When we come together at the right time, it’s going to be scary for the rest of the league,” Wright added.
The DC Grays head to Silver Spring to take on the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts on Thursday night. First pitch is set to be thrown at 7:00 p.m.