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.