SOUTH COUNTY, Va. — It was who DC Grays manager Reggie Terry wanted to see step up to the plate in the bottom of the sixth. The South County Braves had already plated two runs in the inning and had battled back from a 9-3 deficit, which followed a Grays offensive outburst that saw them score nine runs across the second, third and fourth frames.
Anthony Steinhardt, who was hitting .214 entering play and hadn’t hit a home run all season, strolled to the plate with a runner on first and two outs in the inning. He watched Joey Craska’s (NJIT) first two pitches miss the strike zone for balls, then watched the third pitch for a strike. On the fourth pitch, he fouled it off down the first base line, leaving him with two strikes, giving the Grays an opportunity to work out of the inning with the score still tied.
But on the fifth pitch, Steinhardt unloaded. He sent Craska’s 2-2 pitch over the right field wall for a two-run homer and broke the back of the Grays’ bullpen once more this season. It’s become a common theme all season for the Grays. That is, jumping out to an early lead, backed by a solid start on the mound, only for the bats to go cold in the late innings and the bullpen to swallow a late lead.
And the losing formula might have stung just a little more in the Grays’ 11-9 loss to South County on Saturday night at South County High School. The pieces were all in place for what could have — should have — been DC’s sixth win in seven tries over the Braves. That was until the lead vanished in the sixth inning.
But the loss can’t be entirely blamed on the bullpen. Aside from the go-ahead homer, Craska was dealing. He came in to clean up a mess that was left by Justin Melton (Emory), who was only pitching in his third game of the season. Melton yielded four runs and only recorded one out in the fifth when Terry turned to Craska.
Before the bullpen surrendered the lead, newcomer Nick Ramanjulu (Towson) started Saturday night’s game on the mound and allowed three runs (two earned) in the first three innings, and the offense gave him — and the rest of the pitching staff — more than enough run support.
Don Freyer (Shorter) made his first start as a position player after pinch-hitting on Thursday night against the T-Bolts. He rewarded Terry immediately, crushing a two-run homer in the second inning. Two innings later, Cam Bufford (Grambling) smacked his team-leading sixth home run over the center field fence. The Grays' offense was on a roll during the first four innings, but following Bufford’s bomb, only two DC hitters reached base over the final five frames.
But with the Grays’ big lead, it gave Terry enough confidence to turn to the bullpen for the final 18 outs. He first made the move to Dylan Seisky (Lafayette), who’s one of the more trusted relievers in the bullpen, but he hadn’t thrown in three-and-a-half weeks. He delivered favorable results in his first appearance in 24 days, working around a hit and a walk in a scoreless fourth inning.
Following the Grays’ third straight three-run inning in the top of the fifth, Terry used some of his younger arms with the sizable lead he had. Melton was the next arm to jog in from the right field bullpen. He walked the first two hitters he faced and then yielded singles to the next two. He followed it up with a strikeout and hit the next batter before Terry motioned for Craska.
Craska began his outing by allowing a lead-off single, but as the runner on first was attempting to go first-to-third on the hit, right fielder Kyle Chmielewski (Lafayette), first baseman Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) and third baseman Robbie Wacker (Emory) teamed up to gun him down at third for the second out. Next, Craska forced Brett Stallings to pop out to shortstop to end the inning.
Four runs crossed the plate fifth, trimming the Grays’ lead to just two runs and it appeared that they were out of the worst of it. Until they took the field in the sixth.
Craska went back out to the mound for his second inning of work and immediately forced the first Brave hitter in the sixth to ground out. He quickly yielded a one-out single to Peyton Thomas, and then the wheels started to fall off. An error on a misplayed fly ball off the bat of Nick Cmeyla allowed Thomas to score and Cmeyla to reach third. Next, Craska induced a ground out to third base that scored Cmeyla, which was then followed with a two-out single.
And then Steinhardt’s blast completed the Braves’ comeback in the seventh, and even though four runs crossed the plate with Craska on the mound, none were charged to him as earned runs while the Grays spiraled toward a group loss.
Craska, and his older brother Frank Craska (Lafayette), quietly pitched the final two innings, before the Grays’ bats went down without a whimper in the ninth.
The Grays travel to Alexandria to take on the Aces on Sunday night as they attempt to right the ship. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. at Frank Mann Field.