By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — “The center fielder is back at the wall… And it’s gone! Grays walk it off,” DC Grays’ play-by-play announcer Craige Smith bellowed after catcher Jay Tarkenton (Old Dominion) hit a moonshot that smacked the base of the left center field wall in the 11th inning at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
“Wait, no,” Smith continued. “The ball stayed in the park and the Grays have actually tied the game at nine here with two outs in the 11th inning.”
Smith’s commentary provided the perfect summary of the Grays’ 9-9 game against the Alexandria Aces that wound up resulting in a suspension in the 12th inning: Close but not quite enough.
After the Grays tied the game up at three apiece in the fourth inning, the Aces and Grays see-sawed for the remainder of the night. DC gave up two runs in the fifth, only to tie the game and score two runs in the sixth. Then again in the seventh, Kai Cummings (Mount St. Mary’s) allowed a run to score, only for Cam Bufford (Grambling) to tie the game once again on a solo home run — in his first game since arriving in DC, no less.
And it happened once more in the eleventh.
In his third inning of work, Frank Craska (Lafayette) allowed a bloop single and then a home run to Aces’ right fielder Anthony Migliaccio to break the 6-6 tie. Then two pitches later, Matt Stone smacked his second home run of the night that Scotty Bandura (Princeton) could only look up and watch.
But even as Bandura watched the ball sail over the bullpen out in left field, the Grays had Bandura’s speed and baserunning aggressiveness to thank for giving the team a chance to battle back.
In the fourth, Bandura was hit by a pitch and reached first with an out. Following Burke Camper’s (Towson) strikeout, Kenny Bell (Southeastern Louisiana) walked to give DC runners — with game-changing speed — on first and second with two outs.
Bell’s walk gave Sam Kaplan (Cornell) a chance to drive in Bandura who stood at second base. On the first pitch of Kaplan’s at-bat both Bandura and Bell took off for third and second base, respectively.
They both slid into the bags safely as the risky and aggressive baserunning gave Kaplan a chance to drive in a run with two runners in scoring position, something DC has had trouble with all season.
Kaplan stared at his bat, knocked the turf pellets off of his cleats before getting back into the box. He fouled off a tough 2-2 curveball, sending it slowly down the third base line. He unloaded on the next pitch.
Kaplan swung and sent a deep fly ball to left-center field that landed in DC’s bullpen, tying the game at three.
For the first time seemingly all season, the Grays bench could finally breathe a collective sigh of relief — one of their hitters finally came through with runners on base.
Kaplan’s home run opened the floodgates for timely hits. When the Grays trailed by another two runs in the sixth with runners on first and second, Kaplan and Ben Nardi (Catholic) drove in separate RBI singles to tie the score at six.
And then after the Aces grabbed the lead back with a sacrifice fly in the seventh, Bufford’s opposite field home run tied the game again.
After Bufford’s shot, the clutch hits stopped falling. In the first extra inning, DC loaded the bases for an over-aggressive Cal Rucker (Georgetown), who replaced Nardi at first in the seventh inning, as he grounded out in an inning-ending double play after swinging at the first pitch he saw.
And then in the 11th, trailing by three after the two home runs in the top half, the well-timed hits found their way back to the Nations Youth Baseball Academy.
Kyle Chmielewski (Lafayette) singled and Robby Wacker (Emory) walked to open the frame. Patrick Vandenburgh (Lafayette) lined a single to center field that found open grass, scoring Chmielewski from second, bringing the score back to a manageable 9-7 deficit.
A wild pitch allowed both Wacker and Vandenburgh to move up 90 more feet, giving the Grays confidence that they could easily tie the game.
But it turned out to be anything but easy. Bufford hit a hard ground ball to short that stopped Wacker in his tracks and Bandura — who leads the Grays in hits — struck out after a six-pitch battle.
It seemed as if all hope was lost. Tarkenton, who entered the game in the top half of the inning after replacing a pinch runner, expected Monday night to be his day off. Even as one of DC’s leading hitters, Tarkenton didn’t see himself in a situation where he would come off the bench — unless in an emergency situation.
But there he was, walking up to the plate slowly after Bandura’s strikeout. He settled in and watched a pitch whiz by.
On the next pitch, Tarkenton didn’t take his time to wait out the pitcher any longer. He swung and sent a fly ball to center field. Everyone in the stands thought it was gone. Everyone in the press box thought it was gone. And even a few players and coaches on the Grays bench thought it was gone.
It looked like it had flown over the fence. Until it hit off the base off the wall, tying the game at nine with two outs in the 11th. Excitement, yet filled with a little bit of disappointment.
And after Bell struck out to end the inning, the game played on.
Aces’ shortstop Adam Tellier reached on a Rucker error after he wasn’t able to pick Wackner’s throw out of the dirt and stole second with an out.
And then, a bolt of lightning struck about 10 miles away from the Grays’ home field. The umpires, who had ignored the heat lightning in the sky, suspended the game when the lightning became too clear to miss.
Monday night’s matchup was officially suspended at 10:33 p.m. with a resumption date to be announced in the coming days.
When the lightning bolt struck, a collective groan could be heard from the Grays dugout.
It was their first complete performance as a team all season. The bats were hot, picking up hits with runners on base. The pitching was solid (for the most part) all evening. And the defense, especially with Bell running around with his hair on fire and stealing hits in center field, wasn’t bad.
A team performance that was close, but not quite enough.
The Grays take on the South County Braves on Wednesday at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. First pitch is set to be thrown at 7 p.m.