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.