By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Six days ago, at the end of West Coast Conference season, Cooper Vest (BYU) was told to pack his bags and board a cross-country flight to Washington D.C. and play for the DC Grays this summer.
On Monday night, he found himself on the mound for the first time in months — leading his new team to a 5-3 win over the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts at the Washington National Youth Academy in the season opener for the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
Though recruited to BYU as a pitcher, an injury kept the lefty off the mound this spring. Instead, he played the outfield for the Cougars — hitting .261 in 29 games. The BYU coaching staff wanted him to begin to build up arms strength this summer, and he was happy to take the ball in the opener.
He made the most of the opportunity.
After striking out Silver Spring T-Bolts center fielder Naighel Calderon to begin the evening, he strutted around the mound and smiled. It was all warranted for a guy who hadn’t pitched since high school.
“I didn’t ask to go and pitch,” Vest said. “Coach told me I was pitching the first game of the season and I said ’okay, whatever you need, coach’.”
The left-hander used a mixture of his fastball and curveball to keep Silver Spring off-balance in his three innings of one-run ball. He often worked backwards, starting hitters off with his off-speed pitches, and later pounded the zone with his fastball later in each at-bat.
“I just have to get a couple more jogs in after the game [to get the blood flowing in the arm],” Vest said with a laugh.
His deception and long pauses in between pitches kept Silver Spring guessing, which resulted in four strikeouts and only a single walk. Vest received a scattered applause after his final strikeout of the day — his third via the fastball.
The scattered applause of 233 hometown fans felt welcoming for Vest and his teammates. For the past 681 days, there had been no D.C. Grays baseball. The pandemic cancelled the Ripken League season in 2020 and the Grays felt they had waited long enough.
After Vest struck out the side on a mere 11 pitches in the top of the first, center fielder Scott Bandura (Princeton) lined a 1-1 fastball between the shortstop and third baseman. Then after a flyout, Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond), who led the Atlantic-10 conference in hitting, and catcher Burke Camper (Towson) walked to load the bases. A wild pitch from Silver Spring starter Zach Tsakounis allowed Bandura to score.
It would be the only run the Grays would score in the opening frame, however. Tsakounis stranded the next two runners after striking out center fielder Kenny Bell (Southeastern Louisiana) and third baseman Robby Wacker (Emory) to escape the first inning jam.
In the second, the Grays loaded the bases again with an out after first baseman Vince DiLeonardo (Elon) singled, Bandura walked, and a Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) singled. But unlike the prior inning, the Grays couldn’t push a run across after Sprague-Lott grounded into a double play.
In the next inning, though, the T-Bolts finally got to Vest — breaking through with a two-out RBI-double. It would be all the T-Bolts could muster off of Vest, who was pulled after forcing the second baseman Noah Levin to pop out to second to end the inning.
After going down quietly in the third inning, D.C.’s bats woke up again in the fourth and fifth innings. The fourth inning run was highlighted by a Sprague-Lott RBI single that drove in Bandura.
And in the fifth, the Grays offense finally broke through. After Silver Spring reliever John Alvey plunked the lead-off batter and walked the next two, DiLeonardo came through with the hit that the Grays had been searching for all night.
He drove Wacker and Kenny Jones (Richmond) in with a seeing-eye single through the infield, and Bandura tacked on the third run of the frame with a sac-fly to center field to give D.C. a 5-1 lead.
Silver Spring, however, didn’t go down without a whimper, scoring two in the sixth to inch closer, 5-3.
Stellar bullpen work, though, closed the door on a T-Bolts comeback.
After giving up a run in his first inning of work, Joe Richardson (Southern) bounced back with a scoreless seventh inning, and Joseph O’Connell (Harvard) and Frank Craska (Lafayette) allowed just a single base runner in the final two innings of the evening.
After Craska recorded the save in the ninth, the Grays gave their fans a win for the first time since July 2019. And it all felt worth the wait.
The Grays travel to Lorton on Tuesday for a 7:00pm road game against the FCA Braves at South County High School. The Braves lost their opener 3-1 to the Alexandria Aces on Monday.
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