The results may not reflect it – three series sweeps and only a single game decided by less than 5 runs – but there was plenty of drama and intrigue to be found just below the surface at the 1st Annual Mid Atlantic Championships.
The intrigue arrived before a single pitch had been thrown in either semi-final series. As our preview article alluded to, the Yaks had a decision to make in regards to Jarod Bull. Would they follow their late season template and attempt to save him for later in the day or would they follow the more conventional path by throwing their ace in the all-important first game of a 3-game series? Ultimately, the Yaks decided to buck convention by going with Dan Potter in the first game against My Name is ERL. The decision – when it came to light – surprised many players who saw it as an unnecessary risk not worth the potential benefit. The Yaks, however, felt the decision was risky but justified.
“Due to the format and unfortunate circumstances of the Bruisers not having pitchers, we were 99% sure that the Stompers would get to finals with fresh arms,” team captain Nick Shirey explained several days after the tournament. “[Jared] Laird was not available for the Yaks and Bull was on a strict 15 inning limit, so we were going Potter Game 1 and Game 3.”
Unfortunately for the Yaks, the worse case scenario played out. Potter – inconsistent on the mound for much of the regular season – had a down game at a bad time. He struggled with his command and the game got out of hand almost immediately. Potter was unable to make competitive pitches consistently and ERL were content to take their walks. ERL won in a landslide by a score of 13-0.
With their backs now up against the wall, the Yaks finally turned to their ace. Rather than looking for him to set the tone for the day, the Yaks now hoped Bull could simply keep them alive. That hope was undercut – in a major way – in the game’s first at bat. ERL captain Connor Young took the third pitch from Bull – a screwball that caught way too much of the plate – over the centerfield fence on spacious Sam Horn Field for a solo homerun. It was “just” a solo shot but with Young on the mound a one run deficit felt massive. The early homerun seemed to lift ERL and deflated whatever wind was left in the Yaks’ sails. The odds were too much to overcome. Bull had little trouble the rest of the way but that didn’t matter as Young shut down the Yaks for a second straight game to send his team into the semi-finals.
Despite the outcome, there was no second-guessing to be found on the Yaks’ sideline from Shirey or any of the Yaks.
“We weren’t playing just to make it to the Championship series – we wanted to have fire power to win it if we got there. We would do the same thing again. Our whole team was still in agreement even after Saturday.”
For Young and ERL, getting that monkey off of their backs – ERL lost three straight to the Yaks to end the regular season – gave them significant momentum heading into the finals.
"I knew if we were gonna beat them we would need to hit right away, and that's what we did,” Young told The Drop. “I felt like those were two of the best games we played all season.”
Meanwhile on Sheff Field, the number two seeded Stompers took on the number three seeded Barrel Bruisers to determine who would face ERL in the championship. The numbers mismatch could be seen in the pre-game batting practice. The Stompers’ filled the entire field during their session, with six players – the Cooke brothers, Nick Schaefer, Dan Isenberg, Billy Owens, and their not-so-secret weapon Jordan Robles – making for a complete if not crowded roster. This was in stark contrast to the Bruisers who went at it as a duo comprised of Jerry Hill and Chris Owen. Without their two regular season aces – Ryan Doeppel and Ben Stant – the odds were stacked against the heavy hitting Bruisers.
In a sport where players are often disinclined to enter a big tournament without an army of mercenary pitchers waiting in the wings, Chris and Jerry displayed a tremendous amount of heart and competitiveness in going at it alone. The duo knew very well what they were up against, but gave it all that they had just as they did all season long.
Chris – who has come a long way on the flat hill this season – flashed an above average slider that might have had too much movement at points. Often the ball started well behind a batter only to curve all the way over the plate and end up outside the target strike zone. The Stompers’ Billy Owens – who has seen quite a bit during his three decades in the game – was overheard remarking that it been a long time since he had seen a slider with that kind of break to it. The numbers back up Billy’s assessment as Chris struck out the veteran switch hitter three times in game one.
The Stompers – who batted five the entire tournament while rotating players in and out – were consistent on offense. The team churned out six runs in the first, two in the second (courtesy of homeruns by Owens and Robles), and twelve runs in the 3rd. Stompers’ longtime ace Nick Schaefer – making his first appearance since a walk off championship game loss to the Yaks in the July tournament – held the Bruisers in check. Schaefer no-hit the Bruisers over three innings, the only blemish on his score card coming via a first inning walk to the master of the strike zone, Jerry Hill. The Stompers won via the 10-run mercy rule in three innings.
Displaying the fighting spirit they have become know for, the Bruisers did not go quietly into the night. The Stompers jumped out to a 10-1 lead in the first inning of game two, with Dan “Doc” Isenberg working around a pair of walks and a single to strikeout the side for his team. However in the second, an unintentional hit batsman seemed to unravel Dan. After hitting Hill in the temple with a pitch, Dan began to struggle with his command. The big blow was a grand slam off the bat of Chris Owen that cut the margin to 10-7. One batter later, Isenberg pulled himself from the game giving way to Schaefer to lock things down. The three run deficit was as close as the Bruisers would get. The Stompers put up three more runs in the second before walking the game off via the 10-run mercy rule in the third.
With that, the finals were set – the fourth seeded My Name is ERL facing the second seeded Stompers for $1,200 and the title of 2017 Mid Atlantic Champions. There would be no starting pitching surprises in this one. Jordan Robles toed the rubber for the Stompers while the rubber armed Connor Young took the ball for ERL, just as everyone in attendance expected.
After ERL went quietly in the first, Young stumbled – uncharacteristically so – in the bottom half of the inning. Robles and Schaefer reached via walks. Young rebounded by striking out Doc Isenberg to bring Billy “The Kid” Owens to the plate. The 3-time National Champion has his fair share of big game experience and patiently worked the count full while waiting for a pitch to drive. He got just that and deposited a 3-2 hanger over the left-center field fence for a back breaking three run homer. Paul Cooke followed with a walk and Robles tripled Cooke in, putting ERL in a 4-0 hole after one complete inning of play.
After the shaky first, Connor settled down – a triple and run-scoring single to Schaefer in the 4th was the only further damage – but a 5-run cushion was more than enough for Robles. Jordan – arguably one of the best players in the game currently – shut down ERL and didn’t allow a base runner the rest of the way. Jordan capped off the game by striking out nine in a row in the final three innings.
The second game of the championship series looked a lot like the first early on. The Stompers once again jumped out to a 4-0 lead. This go-around it was Robles who inflicted the majority of the damage via a 2-out grand slam.
The 4-run first put ERL in a hole but kept them within striking distance. The game entered the fourth with the score still 4-0. That’s when the very durable Young succumbed to a wrist injury that forced him to pull himself from the game. All the players that competed against ERL this season knew the injury must be serious for Connor to pull himself out of such an important game.
Southpaw Joe Schlindwein took over in relief. Joe made his Mid Atlantic pitching debut in August and failed to get out any of the seven batters he faced. This outing went far better – at least early on – as Joe struck out the side in the 4th. To cap off his big inning, Joe took Robles deep in the bottom half to get ERL on the board. The homerun was the first time in thirty Mid Atlantic innings that Robles allowed a run. Connor saw Joe’s impressive fourth inning performance as a bright spot in what was otherwise a disappointing series.
“How could you not love Joe? No doubt a fan favorite. He's been the project since the season started. He wasn't half the player he is now six months ago. I've known Joe has it in him, even when we were 17 playing basketball together. If you can push Joe the right way, you're gonna get every last drop of potential out of him. I really can't see myself playing on a team without Joe. Look for him to take the mound a bunch more next summer for ERL. "
Although Joe did not receive any votes for Rookie of the Year, the league – including the Yaks’ Shirey – have taken notice. “Joe has made the most progress out of any player I’ve seen in MAW this year. He’s going to become a really legit wiffs hitter with power.”
The Stompers tacked on five insurance runs against ERL in the top of 5th inning and cruised to a 9-0 victory to take the title. To nobody’s surprise, Jordan Robles was unanimously named the postseason MVP.
“Jordan is the best player in the country right now,” Cooke gushed when reached for comment. “That’s not a slight to anyone else but he is so great at so many things. On the mound he is a strike thrower, has big breaking stuff; at bat he is an on-base machine who also has power, which is rare. He’s also got a competitive fire that is infectious in the dugout.”
Schaefer is in agreement with his captain.
“Great players step up in big games and he [Robles] dominated both on the mound and in the batters box. For such a young player his professionalism and maturity stood out. His confidence is infectious and spreads to his teammate. I have played for and against and have seen a lot of great Wiffleball players and I believe Jordan has a chance to be a special player.”
Cooke – who deserves a lot of credit for the way he managed the team’s roster this season – was thrilled with the way the Championship and entire season played out.
“I could not be more proud of our guys. I went into the tournament with the mindset that we will win this as a team or lose this as a team. I even contemplated batting six.”
Cooke spread his praise around, singling out each one of his teammates for their contributions.
“Nick [Schaefer] was his usual self on the mound and what was extra impressive was both Nick and Jordan [Robles] kept their pitch counts very low. A ton of first pitch strikes which allows you to work out of the zone for the next two or three pitches. Once again, as was the pattern this season, the results from Dan [Isenberg] on the mound didn’t necessarily match up with the stuff he carried . . . Billy [Owens] proved that he is still a great hitter. The opposite field home run in game one of the finals was a perfect mix of working the count and getting his pitch . . . I also don’t want to overlook Paul’s contributions on the day. Despite being ill almost the entire week before, he provided us with his usual patience, getting deep into counts. He continued his ability to get on base and played very well defensively.”
For the Stompers franchise – which turns twenty years old in 2018 – the win was their first of a postseason tournament, topping their 2nd place finish in the 2002 USPPBA east region playoffs, 3rd place finish in the 2003 Fast Plastic NJ/NY regional playoffs, 3rd place in the 2003 Fast Plastic National Championship Tournament, and 3rd place (tie) in the 2004 Fast Plastic NJ regional playoffs.
Here and There
Prior to the start of the tournament, MAW announced the winners of its regular season awards. A full awards recap can be found here . . . The award winners were presented with signs commemorating their accomplishments. The signs are displayed on the right field wall at Sheff Field and will be updated annually . . . A steady win blew out on both fields all day and picked up during the championship series. This led to an inordinate number of home runs for the day . . . ERL’s Jim Linhart walked an impressive nine times versus Dan Potter in the semi-final opener and added a hit for good measure . . . MAW tested several presentation upgrades during the finals, including a public address system, player entrance music, and live streaming on YouTube. While there were some hiccups, MAW officials were pleased with the results and look to fine turn for 2018 . . . Billy Owens hit a pair of homeruns (one left handed and one right handed) to give him four on the year (regular + post-season) over just two tournaments . . . Surprisingly, two of the six games were won via the 10-run mercy rule. Likewise, the smallest margin of victory in any game was one and the second smallest was five runs.
The off-season is here but don’t expect the MAW offices to be closed for very long. MAW officials will travel to Frisco, Texas on October 21st for the Fast Plastic Texas Open. In addition, the Bruisers and Stompers are expected to field teams at the Arlington Wiffleball Tournament in Arlington, VA at the end of October. A wide range of new content is planned for midatlanticwiffle.com for later this fall and into the winter including a searchable index for MAW video content, MAW’s foray into the podcasting world, and additional featured written content. Additionally, you can expect some minor tweaks to the existing content on the website to allow for a more streamlined and user-friendly experience.
Later this year, MAW officials, players, and hangers-on will gather for the organization’s second annual Winter Meetings (date and location TBA). As always, rule and format discussions will be part of the agenda, but more importantly the 2018 schedule is expected to be finalized at or around the time of the meetings. Stay tuned to midatlanticwiffle.com and our social media accounts to see the schedule as soon as it is released.