By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Unpacking what happened at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on Sunday afternoon wouldn’t take a lot of digging. It was a battle that never felt fair and an offensive onslaught that was backed by a dominant pitching performance never put the final score into question.
Nick Ramanjulu (Towson), making his first start for the DC Grays, had been handed his No. 52 Grays home jersey about two hours before first pitch. He took to the bump for the first time since May, and limited an offense that was seeking its eighth win in a row. A lineup that had averaged over eight runs-per-game over the past nine days.
Ramanjulu pitched four innings against the Alexandria Aces and allowed two runs. He set the tone of the gate with a scoreless first inning on the way to the Grays’ 16-4 mercy rule win. He struck out five on 64 pitches. His only blunder: A two-run homer he surrendered in the fourth inning. It wasn’t exactly a spot start, but the Grays desperately needed a solid start from their newest arm with injuries taking their toll on DC’s staff.
Michael Eggert (Wofford) was scratched from his start against the Bethesda Big Train on Saturday night with elbow tightness. In his place, Cody Bosak (Catholic), was given 20 minutes to warm up before the first pitch was set to be thrown. Bosak was on the wrong end of the 10-1 loss in the second game of the doubleheader.
After managing a combined four runs in 16 innings against Bethesda on Saturday night, the Grays nearly matched that total in the first inning on Sunday — then they surpassed it in the third. And with a few early rallies — coming in the first, third, fourth and fifth — the Grays’ offense buried Alexandria from the start. Cam Bufford (Grambling), Burke Camper (Towson) and Sam Kaplan (Cornell) all hit home runs. The Grays leapfrogged the Silver Spring T-Bolts, who lost to the Gaithersburg Giants, for fifth place in the division, and only trail the South County Braves for fourth place by two games. They continued their hot hitting, scoring at least nine runs in three of their last five games.
The Grays (9-18) have eight regular season games left and are shaping up at the right time. Joe Richardson (Southern) and Cooper Vest (BYU) toed the rubber for the first time since dealing with their injury issues earlier this week. The offense is (finally) beginning to pitck up timely, consistent hits with runners on base. And, with Ramanjulu’s solid start on Sunday, the Grays added a new, reliable arm to their pitching staff.
The Grays wrapped up their home schedule on Sunday, but if they get on a roll and win a first-round play-in game, they’ll host at least one more home game in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League semi-finals. But DC wasn’t concerned about it. The Grays are taking it one day at a time.
“The win was big for us,” Camper said after being named DC’s Player of the Game. “We’re just trying to build momentum into the next day and keep going from there.”
And about three hours earlier, the momentum was just beginning to bud. As the balmy summer sun beat down on the turf at the Youth Academy, the offense jumped all over Aces starter Brendan Beaver (Lansing). Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) and Evan Smith (West Virginia) reached on back-to-back one-out singles, and Bufford blasted a no-doubt homer over the left-center field wall in the bottom of the first. It was Bufford’s second home run in three days and he now leads the Grays in home runs with four on the season. His two-for-four day nudged his batting average from .263 to .279.
The offense didn’t stop there, adding four more runs on Camper’s grand slam in the third. He’s at his best when he’s pulling the baseball to the left side of the infield or driving it up the middle, when his head and front shoulder stay pointed to the pitcher, when his weight is balanced and he’s seeking the perfect pitches to hit. And on this particular blast, there was no question that it would leave the yard.
And then the Grays kept adding more runs to the scoreboard. Three more scored in the fourth and fifth. Two more crossed the plate in the seventh, followed by another in the eighth. It was exactly what manager Reggie Terry and the rest of the Grays’ coaching staff had ordered, and gave a trio of pitchers, Ramanjulu, Donovan Freyer (Shorter) and Frank Craska (Lafayette) a yawning lead to protect.
Ramanjulu retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced. The first two hits he yielded came in the fourth — a single and a two-run homer — but retired the next two hitters to end his outing. He threw 37 of his 59 pitches for strikes before he was pulled for the likes of Freyer, who lasted 2 ⅔ innings.
Ramanjulu closed out his outing with a strikeout, electrifying the crowd once more, and was sent out with a small ovation. He earned every single one of those claps on Sunday and stepped up when the Grays needed him the most.