By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — In a week where the DC Grays were playing their best baseball, on a day where they could get back over the .500 mark for the first time since Opening Day, in a game where they were facing a 1-5 opponent, it all went wrong.
The bullpen melted down — once again — in an 8-6 loss to the South County Braves (2-5) that kept DC’s and players standing around in the outfield, talking about the loss for 30 grueling minutes after catcher Ben Avila (Grambing) struck out looking at a curveball down the middle of the plate to end Wednesday night’s ballgame.
The demolition came just when the Grays (2-3) seemed ready to contend with the top dogs in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League. Instead, the Grays find themselves closer to the bottom of the league than the top.
Hasan Aquil (Lincoln) surrendered a two-run lead and the decisive blow — a grand slam in the seventh by the Braves’ Nic Ericsson — but it began before Aquil ran out to toe the rubber with an out left to record in the inning.
The meltdown started with a familiar face — Joseph O’Connell (Harvard) — who due to the cancellation of the Ivy League season has yet to throw a pitch at the collegiate level. He has been up and down thus far this summer. Aquil, who’s more of a crafty left-hander that doesn’t overpower hitters by blowing fastballs by, had his troubles as well.
The loss seemed almost improbable after the Grays’ built a 6-0 lead by scoring all six runs on singles in the first inning.
The six-run lead lasted up until the sixth inning when O’Connell was called on from the bullpen, replacing starter Cooper Vest (BYU), who had turned in his third solid outing in as many appearances. The BYU left-hander departed after throwing five shutout innings of two-hit, six strikeout ball. Yet at the end of the night all he had to show for it was another no-decision.
O’Connell allowed the advantage to be slimmed to 6-3 when Ericsson hit his first home run of the night, a three-run shot that the outfielders could only turn around and watch.
Right after Ericsson’s homer, O’Connell allowed a single but quickly bounced back by getting the next batter to fly out to medium-deep left field to end the inning.
Manager Reggie Terry couldn’t turn to closer Frank Craska (Lafayette) after he pitched three innings in the suspended 12-inning marathon on Monday night, nor could he turn to Joe Richardson (Southern), who’s dealing with an arm injury.
With the Grays’ playing six games on six consecutive days, Terry knew that going deep into his bullpen on Wednesday could have severe consequences by the end of the week so sent O’Connell back out to work the seventh.
O’Connell hadn’t made an appearance since giving up six runs on seven hits in two innings in an extra-innings loss to the Gaithersburg Giants last Saturday, but he delivered favorable results on June 7 against the Silver Spring T-Bolts where he pitched a scoreless eighth inning.
Terry sent O’Connell back out to the mound to find his stuff, but unfortunately it never came. The inning started off with loud contact — a double to No. 7 hitter Jonathan Fisher. Then, he issued a walk to the next batter and then a single to the next.
It looked like he had found his groove, striking out the Braves’ leadoff hitter Cooper Benzin with the bases loaded. And then he forced the next batter to hit a sacrifice fly to right field.
No harm, no foul, right? The Grays still led by two runs with two outs and runners on the corners. Terry gave O’Connell one final chance, one final batter. But the move to pull him was at least one hitter too late.
He issued a six-pitch walk to re-load the bases before Terry retrieved him for Aquil. By the end of his outing, O’Connell had surrendered five hits and two walks on 47 pitches.
Aquil jogged in from the home bullpen out in left field — his last appearance came in Silver Spring on Sunday where he threw a scoreless inning. His task: force a red-hot, right-handed hitting Ericsson into an out to keep the Grays’ two-run lead intact.
Ericsson made contact with the first pitch Aquil threw. He just missed the sweet spot and fouled it off. On the second pitch, Ericsson swung again and didn’t miss.
He launched a fastball up-and-over the left field fence. Everyone in the ballpark knew it was gone as soon as it left the bat. And in one swing, a game the Grays felt that they had in their hands, fell out of their grasp.
Aquil recorded the final out of the inning two batters later, but the damage had been done. All told in O’Connell’s one-and-two-thirds innings of work, all seven runners he was responsible for had scored.
The Grays tried to battle back, putting a base runner on in the seventh and bringing the go-ahead and winning runs to the plate in the eighth and ninth. But once Ericsson’s second blast left the yard, it seemed all but over.
The bullpen’s struggles overshadowed a six-run outburst in a five-hit, four-walk first inning, where the Grays played it safe, moving runners station-to-station. Cam Bufford (Grambling) and Max Power (Holy Cross) both picked up RBI singles, while Sam Kaplan (Cornell) and Evan Smith (West Virginia) drove in two runners with their singles. And the meltdown gave DC a loss it can ill afford to have against one of the younger, less experienced teams in the league.
If the Grays felt good about the progress they made in the past week, if the defense, the pitching and the timely hitting had jumpstarted the hopes of making a deep run into the postseason, this was a reminder of how low a team could feel — and how quickly.
The Grays host the Bethesda Big Train Thursday night at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. First pitch is set for 7 p.m. This is the make-up game for last Friday's rain-out.