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.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Joseph O’Connell stood out on the mound in a relief appearance on June 19 against Gaithersburg Giants with two outs in the sixth inning. He looked distraught, eyes wide with a blank stare. He had surrendered a two-run homer seconds before and was charged for his fourth earned run (eight total). The Harvard reliever bounced back to end the frame with a ground ball but as he walked off the mound, nothing seemed to be working for him.
He couldn’t locate his curveball — the pitch that gave him the opportunity to walk-on to Harvard’s baseball team as a freshman during the 2019 season — and had no feel for it. O’Connell, who hits the high-80s and low-90s with his fastball, isn’t able to generate swings-and-misses when he lacks command for his off-speed pitches.
After pitching a scoreless inning on Opening Day against the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts, O’Connell’s next four appearances didn’t go to plan. He yielded a combined 18 earned runs over his next 8 ⅔ innings. He tinkered with his curveball, but ultimately couldn’t find the command for it after throwing off a mound in consistent game action for the first time since March 6, 2020, five days before the Ivy League canceled the rest of the season for all spring sports amid coronavirus concerns.
“I didn’t have confidence in my curveball earlier in the summer season at all,” O’Connell said prior to Friday’s win over the Gaithersburg Giants as the overcast clouds from a downpour began to disperse in time for first pitch. “I was missing high-and-low rather than on the corners. It was tough not having a feel for it, I was pretty discouraged.”
But that was all before a bullpen session with Grays pitching coach Andre Rabouin in between his three-inning, eight-run appearance against the Giants and a 2 ⅓ scoreless inning appearance against the Bethesda Big Train eight days later. Ravouin asked O’Connell if he had ever thought about throwing a slider, and O’Connell said that he used to throw one in high school but moved away from it after he was told he didn’t have the right mechanics.
“In high school, I would drop my elbow down more than I should have when I threw my slider,” O’Connell continued. “So, instead of fixing that, I switched to a curveball since I was able to come over the top with it.”
In relief of Tucker Alch (Catholic), O’Connell finally found the results he had been looking for on June 27 when he kept a one-run lead intact against Bethesda, undoubtedly the league’s leading offense. He struck out two batters and allowed a hit, walking off the mound towards the dugout to end an inning three times with more and more confidence each time.
He’s helped stabilize the bullpen in recent weeks, one was prone to surrendering big leads early on in the season. He and the Grays are finally playing their best baseball of the season — something that didn’t happen when the Ripken league canceled its season in 2020 because of the pandemic.
O’Connell agreed to play for DC last season, but that was before the pandemic, before he knew that the Ivy League would cancel its season in 2021, and before he knew that he would stay in his Nashville, Tenn. home instead of returning to school last year in order to maintain his two years of eligibility.
In order to stay in shape for the summer and Harvard’s 2022 season, O’Connell worked out with some of his friends on the University of Tennessee’s club team. He mainly threw off the flat ground and worked on his pitches in bullpens. Rarely was he up on the mound and throwing to hitters in a simulated game.
Only throwing off flat ground and in a bullpen rather for a year-and-a-half and then trying to emulate that in a live game situation? That’s difficult. In fact, he’s thrown more pitches as a Gray (364) than he has at Harvard (86).
“It was tough throwing off the ground and into a net while [Harvard] couldn’t play any games,” O’Connell said. “The curveball is a feel-pitch for me — and throwing it for a strike this summer after not throwing in a game situation is tough, real tough.”
It took him a while — six games — to find his command, but it’s arriving just in time, right as the Grays and their bullpen are tending in the right direction. And it’s not a coincidence. He’s able to throw a slider on any pitch in any count, and has allowed manager Reggie Terry to take a breath and have more confidence when pulling his starter.
“Having a second pitch is so important,” O’Connell added. “It allows you to mess with someone's timing and gets more swings-and-misses. There’s no better feeling than that.”
Terry has been able to thrust him into more high-leverage situations. Before learning to throw his slider, Terry moved him into a low-leverage role as O’Connell tried to fix his curveball. Ultimately, he wasn’t able to fix it, but now has a new pitch to lean on when Terry calls on him to lead the bullpen down the stretch. And with his slider, he’s able to generate swings-and-misses on his fastball, which he said is always a good feeling.
DC has eight games left on its schedule until the playoffs begin in two weeks, and if the Grays want a chance to play in the semi-final series, then O’Connell’s recent dominance (and new found slider) will need to play a major part in it.
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.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Kai Cummings (Mount St. Mary’s) had been solid — not great — in his 16 ⅔ innings of relief out of the bullpen for the DC Grays this summer before entering in the second inning on Friday night. Manager Reggie Terry has used Cummings in long relief, mainly when the Grays are in the midst of playing five, six or seven consecutive games without an off-day in sight.
On Friday night, he was called into long relief once again. He took over on the bump for Joey Craska (New Jersey Institute of Technology) after Craska’s fastball had run a bit wild. The Grays were down 5-1 to the third-place Gaithersburg Giants, and with no outs and a runner on second, Terry was hoping for Cummings to eat some innings before the Grays’ doubleheader against the Bethesda Big Train Saturday afternoon.
Terry received his wish and more as Cummings rewarded DC with five shutout innings, striking out seven hitters and only allowing three base runners in the Grays’ 13-7 win over the Giants at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. And, because of an offensive explosion for the second game in a row, DC was able to run away with the victory on the back of a seven-run eighth inning.
“The key tonight was just throwing strikes,” Cummings said. “The Giants are a good team and the win puts us in a good position for tomorrow against the Big Train.”
Because of the flurry of runs, the Grays moved to within a game of third place and, if they can keep the hot bats going, should host a playoff game when the Cal Ripken Collegiate League begins postseason play in two weeks.
Two days after scoring nine runs in a loss to the Alexandria Aces, the Grays made sure that this offensive outburst didn’t go to waste. Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) picked up three hits in five at-bats, scoring four runs. Evan Smith (West Virginia) added to his recent offensive tear with a four-hit day and extended his hitting streak to four games. And the victory, like any in a 36-game season sprint, was a small step for Cummings and the rest of his team, who believe that it can compete with anyone on a nightly basis.
“Tonight’s win can go a long way in determining our playoff position,” Cummings continued. “Hopefully we win a few more and can host a playoff game.”
And even though the Grays sit in last place in the league, they believe that they can make some noise once the playoffs roll around. It’s not like they’re less talented than other teams, nine of their 16 losses have come by two runs or fewer. And on Friday, they seemed to have finally seemed to have put a complete game together.
Outside of Craska’s five-run start, the bullpen was just about as flawless as it has been all year. Cummings worked his five shutout innings, Justin Melton (Emory) pitched around two base runners for a scoreless seventh in his first appearance as a member of the Grays. Donavon Freyer (Shorter), who hasn’t allowed a run in three of his four games this season, threw 10 pitches to shut down the Giants in the eighth.
Not only was the bullpen improved on Friday night, but the defense also was too. It didn’t commit a mistake outside of Craska’s error in the second inning and Tanner Sagouspe (Cal Poly) gunned down two runners trying to score on a sacrifice fly at the plate in the first and second inning. Burke Camper (Towson) threw out two would-be base stealers and has nabbed a ridiculous 37.2% of runners this season.
“All I was thinking about was getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible,” Sagouspe said of his double play. “You always have to be ready when the ball is hit in your direction.”
“Those were two perfect throws [from Sagouspe],” Smith added, who was the cut-off man had either of Sagouspe’s throws gone awry. “I just saw the ball go by my face. He has an absolute cannon.”
When Cummings entered in the second, it became a momentum shift as he worked deeper and deeper into his outing. In the third, the Grays had cut the Gaithersburg lead to 5-2 and added another run in the following frame. They chipped away until Sagouspe tied the game with a single up the middle that scored Scott Bandura (Princeton) and Sprague-Lott in the fifth.
Two innings later, DC’s earlier four-run deficit turned into a one-run lead when Smith scored on a wild pitch. And then the offensive floodgates opened in the eighth. Nehemiah Wright (Grambling) scored on a Sprague-Lott single. Sprague-Lott worked his way around the bases and scored on a Sagouspe fielder’s choice. Two more runs scored on a wild pitch. And finally, Jahli Hendricks (Southern) and Bandura capped off the inning with two-out RBI-singles.
The Grays didn’t have to worry about much when their closer Frank Craska (Lafayette) entered the game, protecting an eight-run lead. Even though he surrendered a two-run homer, DC finished out the victory with relative ease. That was a welcomed change.
The DC Grays return to action against the Bethesda Big Train on Saturday afternoon with a doubleheader. First pitch is set for 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
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.
By Chris Hirons
BETHESDA, Md. — Cody Bosak (Catholic) was worked into a stressful situation in the bottom of the eighth inning. With the game tied at three, runners on the corners and with one out, he took a deep breath and paused before throwing his first pitch to the Bethesda Big Train’s No. 7 hitter Keith Torres (Sacramento State).
He had already worked himself out of the same jam in his first frame of work in the inning prior by forcing Bethesda’s No. 3 hitter Matt Thomas (William & Mary) to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Bosak, working in his second multi-inning appearance since joining the Grays just under a week ago, threw two straight balls to Torres that missed the strike zone by inches — one a touch high, the other an inch or two low-and-outside. The third pitch slipped out of his hand, out of the reach of catcher Burke Camper’s (Towson), striking the home plate umpire in the mask, and allowed the go-ahead run to score and the runner on first to reach third.
He forced Torres to pop up to second base on the next pitch, but an error followed suit and allowed the runner at third to score. Bosak, a high school senior, was sharp aside from the pitch that ran wild, and, by the end, took the loss in Bethesda's 5-3 win over the DC Grays (7-14) on Tuesday night.
The Big Train’s two scores in the bottom half of the eighth were just enough to squeak by DC, which led off the top of the ninth with a walk from Jahli Hendricks (Southern) that brought the tying-run to the plate three separate times. But the next three Grays’ hitters went down in order, ending a game defined by their spotty hitting and few pitching mistakes.
Tuesday marked Tucker Alch’s (Catholic) second start against Bethesda this year, eight days removed from his gutsy 4 ⅔ inning and six-run (three earned) performance at Shirley Povich Field. A start in which Bethesda taggedAlch for the first runs he had allowed all season, after beginning the year with 16 ⅔ scoreless frames. He was solid in his first start against Bethesda. But on Tuesday, he turned it up a notch — Alch shoved.
It’s Alch’s nature to deceive hitters with his craft. He won’t light up a radar gun with every pitch he throws, but he makes up for it by mixing his speeds, movement and pitches. He gutted through all 88 of his pitches — 62 were thrown for strikes — on Tuesday night in his five inning, three-run (two earned) start.
He was knocked around a bit early, allowing two runs to score in the first inning before bouncing back in the second. The Big Train tacked on another run in the third, but that was it. Alch then worked around a runner on third with no outs in the fourth and fifth innings. With a little bit of defensive help, Alch and his defense kept Bethesda's offense quiet.
And then, about an hour-and-a-half after the first pitch was thrown, Cooper Vest (BYU) was the first pitcher asked to loosen in the Grays’ bullpen. It was a winning formula manager Reggie Terry would have liked to turn to later in the game, but Alch was pulled a tad early after Bethesda ran up his pitch count and forced him into multiple high-leverage situations. Vest got two quick outs and then worked around a two-out infield single to keep the game tied at three in the bottom of the sixth.
Yet the Grays’ offense wasn’t able to use Alch’s performance and Vest’s dominance as a springboard.
They missed multiple opportunities to score runs in innings they didn’t, and even when they scored runs in the innings they did, missed more opportunities to tack on and distance themselves from the Big Train. In the first, Scott Bandura (Princeton) reached to leadoff the game, stole second and was moved to third on a ground out. Back-to-back strikeouts stranded him. And then the Grays left nine more runners on base.
Jay Tarkenton (Old Dominion) drove in the Grays’ first run of the day with an infield single in the second and Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) followed that up with a single up the middle to load the bases with an out. Bandura smoked a hard ground ball to the third baseman, who threw Peter Costigan (Charleston) out on a force play at home, and the next hitter grounded out to short.
The same thing happened in the fourth and sixth innings when the Grays loaded the bases with less than two outs but only came away with a run from each inning.
And then the Big Train offense broke through in the bottom of the eighth to score two runs to break the tie in the bottom of the eighth. And finally, after Hendricks reached on a lead-off walk in the ninth, Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) almost kept the Grays’ mini-rally going with a rope to right-center field that was just in reach of the right fielder’s glove.
It ended the Grays’ chances and left them with their 10th game that they’ve lost by two runs or fewer. On a night where it looked like they could finally piece it all together for their first back-to-back wins of the season, the Grays buckled.
The DC Grays look to bounce back on Wednesday evening against the Alexandria Aces at Frank Mann Field. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.
Cooper Vest (left) and Scott Bandura (right) go over an outfield drill with Mamie Johnson Little League members.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — On a neighborhood baseball field, where more grass than dirt covered the infield, behind Kimball Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C., a young player ran out to center field to meet up with his teammates and to take part in a drill conducted by two DC Grays outfielders.
“What’s your name,” the player asked in a high-pitched tone.
“I’m Cooper. My friend Scottie and I are here to teach you to become a better baseball player,” the former No. 1 outfield recruit in Utah responded. The player looked down and then back up at the Grays’ outfielder. At last, he shrugged and took a knee in the freshly-cut outfield grass, ready to listen to what Cooper Vest (BYU), one of the Grays’ best pitchers, and Scott Bandura (Princeton), arguably the Grays’ best hitter, had to say next.
The same question was repeated more than a handful of times at the four different stations during the DC Grays clinic with young baseball players that belong to the Mamie Johnson Little League, a youth baseball organization that serves families in Ward 7, where Division 1 baseball players Kyle Chmielewski (Lafayette), Evan Smith (West Virginia), Joey Craska (New Jersey Institute of Technology), Frank Craska (Lafayette) and Teddy Blumenauer (Towson) and softball player Mo’ne Davis (Hampton), worked with its young players to improve their skills.
“[My favorite part] had to be learning about all the different skill levels, as well as approaches to life, not even just baseball,” Vest said. “I’m from [Utah], and coming [to D.C.], I love it. I absolutely loved seeing the pure smiles on these kids' faces.”
Most of the players wore the jerseys and hats given out by the Mamie Johnson Little League — mainly Washington Nationals-related gear. Mamie Johnson Little League is a strong supporter of DC Grays RBI - the MLB RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, run by the DC Grays in Washington, DC. The Grays are the only summer college baseball team in the US that also runs an RBI chapter for MLB. The Grays have run Washington D.C.’s RBI program since they partnered with Major League Baseball in 2016 and offer the most economically disadvantaged kids with the chance to play baseball for free. Many Mamie Johnson LL kids participate in the DC Grays RBI Junior Travel Baseball and Junior Softball programs in the summer and fall.
Chmielewski and Smith ran through a few different infield drills with the players. Davis, who plays second base for the softball team at Hampton University, and Joey Craska taught hitting lessons. Blumenauer and the elder Craska worked with the pitchers behind the first base dugout. And Vest and Bandura were, of course, beyond second base and in the outfield grass, helping out with the outfielders and cracking jokes with the kids.
"The clinic was great," said Keith Barnes, the founder and President of Mamie Johnson Little League (and also a coach with DC Grays RBI). "The Grays players were great, and our kids really got a lot out of it. This is just another example of the terrific partnership between our league and the Grays."
The clinic took place at Jackie Robinson Field, where the Grays and Mamie Johnson are working with the DC Department of Parks and Rec on a plan for several new upgrades to both the baseball and softball fields. A Memorandum of Agreement is being drafted between DC Grays Baseball and DPR which will initiate a series of improvements to the fields - including new dugouts, new bullpens, the installation of stands and scoreboards at both fields.
For more information on the DC Grays RBI initiative click here.
Evan Smith (left, West Virginia) and Kyle Chmielewski (right, Lafayette) explain an infield drill.
Kyle Chmielewski (Lafayette) demonstrates a ground ball drill.
The DC Grays and members of the Mamie Johnson Little League post for a group photo.
Joey Craska (New Jersey Institute of Technology) works with a player on his batting skills.
Mo'ne Davis (Hampton) teaches a player the correct way to hold a baseball bat.
Teddy Blumenauer (Towson) awaits a pitch from a Mamie Johnson Little League player as Frank Craska (far right) teaches the player to come set.
Scott Bandura (Princeton) poses for a photo with two Mamie Johnson Little League players.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — There wasn’t much doubt, no drama, no wondering if the gap was wide enough to pull starter Michael Eggert (Wofford) from the mound and dig into the bullpen.
There was, thanks to the torrential downpour from the sky that ended the game in the top of the sixth inning, a quiet win for the DC Grays at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
They beat the South County Braves, 6-0 in what officially goes into the record book as a five-inning win, behind another hitless start by Eggert and some timely offense. Eggert, who was working a nine-strikeout perfect game when he was pulled at the end of the fifth against the Silver Spring T-Bolts on June 24, worked his second consecutive dominant outing, where he struck out two, walked one and (by technicality) pitched a no-hitter. He picked up his first win and hasn’t allowed a run in his past 10 innings. He has struck out 15 batters in 13 innings and walked just a single hitter. On June 13, his ERA jumped to six, but since he’s shaved it down to 1.39.
And his teammates rewarded his effort on the bump, a habit that the offense still looks to get into on a nightly basis, by burying the Braves before the rain moved over Southeast Washington. Cal Rucker (Georgetown), Jay Tarkenton (Old Dominion) and Scott Bandura (Princeton) all chipped in with hits and a run scored in the Grays’ five-run third inning. Cam Bufford (Grambling) provided the big hit with a lead-off home run in the fifth.
DC improved to 7-13, and with the Gaithersburg Giants losing to the Alexandria Aces, moved five games back of second place with 15 games left to play in the regular season.
Here’s how the week of ups and downs went for the Grays: They began the week 6-10, hoping to gain some ground on second place, which was just three-and-a-half games out of their reach. They had their ace on the bump, Tucker Alch (Catholic), who delivered 4 ⅔ innings of six-run (three earned) ball against the league’s best offense in the Big Train before turning it over to the bullpen. The Grays led 7-6 heading into the bottom of the eighth, only to lose by two runs by the time they walked off the field in the ninth inning.
They bounced back the next night with a convincing 15-10 win over South County, before a rain delay on Wednesday killed their momentum in a 12-4 loss to the Aces. Then on Friday night, nothing went right for the Grays in a 14-1 mercy rule loss to the T-Bolts.
But they saved one of their biggest surprises to emerge out of the rotation this summer for Saturday night. Eggert was somewhat of a wildcard for the Grays, the freshman didn’t pitch during his freshman year at Wofford, and began the season by making his first two appearances out of the bullpen.
And on somewhat of a whim, Eggert started against Silver Spring and rewarded the coaching staff with five perfect innings and earned himself another start. In a crowded rotation surrounded by top-flight talent in Cooper Vest (BYU), Jake Davidson (Kenyon) and Alch, Eggert has seemed to have gotten somewhat lost in the mix when talking about the Grays’ best starters.
But there Eggert was on Saturday night, struggling with his curveball, making use of his fastball and the location of it. He located it well, forcing 15 of the 16 hitters he faced into weak contact.
“My fastball and the location carried me through my start,” Eggert said. “I didn’t have my curveball at all, I might have thrown three of them in the third inning. I had a good change-up as well, and they played off really well together.”
He threw 57 pitches as the game dragged through the rain and into the top of the sixth before it was called. The lack of high-leverage situations allowed manager Reggie Terry to watch his pitcher pitch and not have to worry about having to look down towards the bullpen, which has had its struggles this season.
Aside from a walk in the second and a hit-by-pitch in the fourth, those were the only base runners Eggert would allow. He didn’t panic at all after the two runners reached base and forced soft ground balls to the infielders or lazy fly balls to the outfielders.
He strutted off the mound with oozing confidence at the end of every inning and walked back out to the mound more eager than he was the inning before.
There was no lapse at any point from Eggert — he shoved. And he shoved all night long.
The DC Grays will receive a quick two-day break but return to action on Tuesday, July 5 as they travel to Bethesda to take on the Big Train at 7:00 p.m.
By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Jake Davidson (Kenyon) stood on the back of the mound, a few feet off the rubber, running his hands through his hair and staring blankly at the turf at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
An infield pop fly — that was hit about 100 feet in the sky, but only traveled to the right of the pitcher's mound — landed in the middle of four DC Grays defenders. All four infielders crashed towards the ball, third baseman Alex Rosen (Georgetown) called off everyone else, but the ball didn’t fall near where Rosen was standing.
Instead, first baseman Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) and second baseman Jahli Hendricks (Southern) were the ones closest to the baseball once it hit the turf. It was just the beginning of Davidson’s worst start of the season, the first start in which he failed to complete four innings.
Once the Silver Spring T-Bolts’ first hitter of the night reached on the misjudged popfly, it was a sign for things to come for Davidson and the Grays in their 14-1, seven-inning loss on Friday night.
Davidson entered as one of the Grays’ best pitchers this season, the right-hander who tossed seven innings of one-hit, three-run (none earned) ball last week against the second-place Gaithersburg Giants. Davidson, who led the team in innings pitched and ranked third on the team in ERA coming into his start on Friday, allowed four runs in the first inning and three more in the second, and was hooked before he was able to complete the second inning. DC’s offense, aside from a solo home run from Evan Smith (West Virginia) in the bottom of the sixth, was silent.
And so the Grays (6-14) again showed that good things have a habit of vanishing — and vanishing quickly — in a season they haven’t been able to turn around quite yet. The loss dropped them into last place in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League.
The Grays hinted that, with a close two-run loss to the unstoppable Bethesda Big Train on Sunday and a 15-10 win over the South County Braves on Monday, a down season might be on the upswing. That was until two consecutive blowout losses — a 12-4 loss to the Alexandria Aces on Wednesday and Friday's misfortune — forced DC to go back to the drawing board.
The Grays are in a hole because, among other reasons, they haven’t been able to put together a complete performance for more than a game or two at a time. On days the offense and starting pitching seems just about unstoppable, the bullpen is there to cough up a lead. And on days where the starting pitching and bullpen match each other pitch for pitch, the offense can’t buy a timely hit. And then you have days like Friday, where nothing DC tried worked.
And Davidson, an unusual suspect, continued the trend.
Davidson’s success, like any pitcher, revolves around his ability to locate his fastball and to throw it for strikes. But Silver Spring, unlike the other teams Davidson has faced in previous starts, took more pitches and forced him to throw the ball in the zone. In Davidson’s best appearances, his strike percentage typically hovers around anywhere from 60-to-67%. On Friday, out of the 67 pitches he threw, only 56.7% of them crossed the plate for strikes.
Davidson, too, was unable to establish the lower half of the strike zone. He couldn’t get hitters to hit the ball on the ground like he usually does. The damage, once 16 hitters had come to the plate against him, was seven runs on eight hits, three walks and a hit batsman. The sophomore hadn’t allowed more than seven hits in any of five appearances this season.
Cody Bozak (Catholic) came in with two outs in the second and worked 3 ⅓ innings of mop-up duty in his Grays debut. Smith, making his first appearance since last Saturday’s win over the Braves, inched the Grays closer with his first home run of the season, but the deficit was already too steep.
Pitching coach Andre Rabouin told a few players that Friday’s loss was a wake-up call that the team needed. Will it be answered? We’ll find out when the Grays host the South County Braves Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
By Chris Hirons
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Joseph O’Connell (Harvard) was two outs — just a ground ball double play — away from finishing his third inning of work after he was called on to relieve DC Grays’ starter Joey Craska (NJIT) following a lengthy rain delay in the top of the fourth. O’Connell already tossed two scoreless innings before giving up a game-tying homer in the sixth.
After surrendering the two-run home run, O’Connell walked the next batter before recording the first out of the inning on a ground ball to first base. He could have chosen to work around the Alexandria Aces’ next hitter, Connor Offshack (Elon), to set up a potential inning-ending double play, but instead O’Connell chose to go after him. It almost worked out as he pumped two pitches by — two swings and misses — before leaving a curveball up in the zone, a mistake O’Connell later told DC pitching coach Andre Rabouin he’d like to have back. Offshack made O’Connell pay by singling up the middle to drive in the runner on second to give the Aces a 5-4 lead.
The single and the misplaced pitch gave the Aces all the life they needed in a 10-run sixth inning on the way to a 12-4 seven-inning victory over the Grays at Frank Mann Field. O’Connell lasted 2 ⅓ innings and was dominant in the two scoreless innings he tossed, striking out four of the six batters he faced.
He was left out on the bump for an inning too long, though. Hasan Aquil (Lincoln) and Vince DiLeonardo (Elon), the latter playing in his last game with DC before heading to school early, combined to pitch the final 1 ⅔ innings for the Grays on Wednesday night. Over the final four innings, the Grays’ offense registered just five base runners and a run. It was a sharp contrast to DC’s 15-10 win over the South County Braves on Monday night, in which the offense scored 12 runs and picked up 15 hits in the final six innings.
And then, after throwing 35 pitches on Sunday against Bethesda and 23 pitches combined in the fourth and fifth innings Wednesday, fatigue caught up to him. O’Connell hasn’t thrown a collegiate pitch after the Ivy League canceled its 2020 and 2021 seasons due to Covid concerns. His command slipped, mixed with a few unfavorable calls, as his fastball and his off-speed pitches flattened out.
Nick Brown (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) was making his fourth start of the season for Alexandria, and has had his fair share of control issues, issuing 12 free passes in 9 ⅓ innings. The Grays capitalized on it and walked five times and scored three runs against Brown. Brown was pulled and a plethora of arms in the Aces’ bullpen allowed just a single run in the 6 ⅓ innings it was responsible for.
Craska, who was making his first start of the summer for the Grays, also struggled with his command in the first inning. He issued three free passes and allowed two runs to score before settling in during the second and third innings. He was sent out to toss the fourth inning before a mixture of lightning and rain sent the game into a delay. He left the game with a 3-2 advantage on the scoreboard.
When O’Connell came in for his first inning of work, he was playing with a one-run lead, and as he began his second inning, the Grays had increased his margin for error after scoring a run on a sacrifice fly in the top of the fifth. Burke Camper (Towson) and Sam Kaplan (Cornell) reached on back-to-back singles with one out. Peter Costigan (Charleston) was able to score Camper on the sacrifice fly, but the Grays left Kaplan stranded at third. The timely hits, and baserunners in general, seemed to have stopped falling once the game resumed from the delay.
Coming out of the delay, the Grays were forced to turn to their bullpen, which along with timely hitting, have seemed to be their achilles heel(s) all season long. And, on Wednesday, it felt as if both of their achilles heels sank them again.
The Grays travel to Gaithersburg on Thursday to face the Giants at Criswell Automotive Field at Kelly Park. First pitch is 7:00pm.