By Chris Hirons
SOUTH COUNTY, Va. — The baseball narrowly nipped Sam Kaplan (Cornell) in the top of the first inning, a few more inches to the right and it’s ball one, but it started a cheer in the DC Grays dugout that didn’t quiet down until night’s end at South County High School on Monday night.
It was the first time Kaplan had been hit-by-a-pitch all season, the first time he had been hit-by-a-pitch at the collegiate level. He trotted down to first, a small victory in itself, and smiled back at DC’s first base dugout. He looked at first base coach Jimmy Williams and laughed. The South County Braves starter looked agitated. A tiebreaking run had come across the plate. And then the runs never stopped coming.
And what unfolded next was the Grays’ best offensive inning all season. It was followed by a 16-2 win, giving the Grays back-to-back victories for the first time all season, as DC defeated South County for the fourth time in five tries.
The Grays would eventually plate eight more runs in the first inning after Kaplan reached base, starting with the hit-by-pitch and ending with Jared Sprague-Lott’s (Richmond) RBI single to right field. Kyle Chmieleski (Lafayette) doubled home a pair of runs. Scott Bandura (Princeton) and Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) drove in a run apiece with singles during the rally. And in the second, the Grays plated four more, followed by three more runs in the top of the sixth. Nine of the 11 position players that appeared in the game picked up a hit. And now, the Grays are 10-18, just a game out of fourth place with seven left to play.
With DC's ace on the mound, the Braves already had a slim margin for error before the first pitch was even thrown. Tucker Alch (Catholic), who paces the league with a 1.82 ERA, cruised through the bottom of the first after he was given a nine-run cushion. He threw 10 pitches and set down the side in order. His offense increased his advantage to 13 by the time he took the mound in the second inning.
“There’s nothing better you could ask for,” Alch said. “We plated nine runs in the first and I went out there and did my job.”
Alch hit a bump — if you even want to call it that — in the second and third innings when he allowed solo homers in both frames. He came into the game with a 1.52 ERA and managed to raise it, even after striking out seven and allowing two runs in six innings.
The right arm of the Division 3 baseball player went to work and shut down the side for the rest of the evening. After he surrendered a single with an out in the third inning, Alch retired the next seven hitters in order when he yielded a two-out single in the fifth. And following that, he set the next three hitters down in order to end his night.
It was another quiet performance from Alch, who overpowered the Braves hitters with his fastball all night long. It was backed by another offensive explosion — the first outburst came Sunday afternoon in a 16-4 mercy rule win over the Alexandria Aces — right out of the gates.
South County starter Brody Mack (William & Mary) struggled with his command from the get-go when he plunked Bandura to lead-off the game. Next, he walked Vandenbergh and Evan Smith (West Virginia), who was named the Cal Ripken Collegiate League Player of the Week on Monday night. Mack bounced back, he struck out Sprague-Lott on seven pitches and had Kaplan on the ropes with an 0-2 count. Mack, a lefty throwing to the right-handed hitting Kaplan, tossed a curveball a little too far inside and hit Kaplan. And that started the offensive onslaught.
He walked two more batters, Alex Rosen (Georgetown) and Ben Avila (Grambling), which scored two more runs. The Braves pulled him before they thought the damage could get any worse.
Spoiler alert: it did.
Joe Alexander (Hood College) came on in relief for Mack and immediately surrendered Chmieleski’s ground-rule double that gave the Grays a five-run lead. And it didn’t stop there, the rally kept going. Cooper Vest (BYU) walked to load the bases once more, Bandura singled to drive in Avila. Vandenbergh beat out an infield single to drive in the seventh run of the inning. Smith reached on a fielder’s choice to extend the lead to eight, and finally, Sprague-Lott singled to right to push the final run of the rally across.
And after the Grays plated another four in the second, there were still five-and-a-half innings to get through. Alch gave up two before the Grays scored another three runs in the sixth and mercy-ruled the Braves in seven innings. But they had done enough in the first to grab control of an otherwise lazy evening. And, to think, it was only a hit-by-pitch that started the rally.
The DC Grays return to action on Wednesday night when they travel to Gaithersburg to face the Giants. First pitch is set for 7:00 p.m.