By Chris Hirons
FAIRFAX, Va. — Burke Camper (Towson) sprinted towards the backstop, chasing a baseball that he wasn’t able to catch, before slowing down once he reached the fence. Some 15 feet away, Nehemiah Wright (Grambling) stood at the plate, eyes wide, hoping Camper could corral the ball and throw out the winning run to send the game into a 13th inning. But the ball never arrived.
Quinn Madden (Hartford) slid head-first across the plate after Wright bounced the baseball in front of the plate, lifting the South County Braves over the DC Grays, 10-9, on Sunday night at South County High School.
Wright put his head down and looked at the baseball in his glove for a moment. He had been handed a three-run lead in the 12th inning after Drew Calhoun’s (Wofford) two-run blast the half inning prior gave the Grays the lead and Patrick Vandenburgh (Lafayette) scored on an error to stretch the lead to three.
It was Wright’s first collegiate appearance on the mound. He was called on to pitch the 12th inning, succeeding Kai Cummings’ (Mount St. Mary’s) five brilliant innings in relief, and to help a taxed bullpen that had thrown 8 ⅔ innings in a doubleheader on Saturday. But it just wasn’t enough.
DC’s bullpen coughed up yet another victory the Grays had within their grasp — the fourth occurrence in the team’s last eight games — and was walked-off for the second time in as many days. This falter dropped DC to 3-6, and it came after relievers Vince DiLeonardo (Elon) and Cummings worked a combined six innings of one-run ball to back Tim Jinks’ (Drew) best start all season.
With the season in a 37-game sprint, and with the Grays falling into fifth place in the league, trailing the Bethesda Big Train by six games, something needs to change for the Grays — and it needs to happen rather quickly.
But when you play seven games in six games in five days, and with just 12 true arms in the bullpen to lean on, days like Saturday and Sunday are bound to happen occasionally. Earlier in the week, it seemed like the bullpen had it figured out after blowing a six-run advantage to South County at home on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Jinks and Cummings impressed by allowing three runs in 4 ⅓ innings against Bethesda’s seemingly unstoppable offense. And on Friday, Dylan Seisky (Lafayette) worked around a two-out walk and Frank Craska (Lafayette) allowed two unimportant runs in a 7-2 win over Silver Spring.
Playing its fourth and fifth game in four days, the true pitchers in DC’s bullpen gave up 10 runs (six earned) in two games on Saturday in Gaithersburg. And all of a sudden, the bullpen woes were back.
The start to Sunday’s eventual loss was ideal as Jinks worked around a lead-off single and walk to keep the Braves off the scoreboard. DC’s offense gave Jinks a lead to protect with a pair of runs in the third and fourth. Vandenburgh went deep for a solo blast — his first of the season — and Jay Tarkenton (Old Dominion) scored on a passed ball in the third. And in the fourth, Scott Bandura (Princeton) added on to the lead with a two-run blast that landed on top of the hill in right-center field.
He would toss four more innings and was in line for the win after allowing three runs (zero earned) in five innings. He finished his fifth and final inning, stranding two runners in scoring position with the lead intact, 4-3.
Then DiLeonardo, a position player who made his debut on the mound on Saturday, stranded two base runners and worked a scoreless sixth; Cummings worked the seventh through 11th innings, but allowed the tying runs to score in the ninth to send Sunday night into extra frames.
Cummings worked around eight hits and three walks to help the Grays keep their bullpen as fresh as possible for the upcoming week. He struck out seven to keep the game within reach for the Grays, who scored three runs in the 12th inning, putting Cummings in the drivers seat for the win.
Down Joe Richardson (Southern) who’s dealing with an arm injury, the bullpen received encouraging signs from its middle relievers, DiLeonardo and Cummings. They both created messes and cleaned them by the end of each frame. Wright couldn’t do the same.
He walked four batters and threw several pitches to the backstop, but managed to get two outs and even had the Braves’ down to their last strike. But South County battled back, scoring four runs on walks and wild pitches before Madden dove across the plate to seal the comeback win for the Braves.
The surge up the standings — if there is one this summer — will have to wait another day.
The DC Grays return home Monday night with a continuation game from June 14 against the Alexandria Aces that begins at 6:30 p.m. That game is tied at nine in the top of the 13th inning. Once that game concludes, the Grays will play a full nine inning game against the Aces. Both games will be played at the Grays’ home park, the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.