APRIL 14, 2018 (YORK, PA) – The first game of the day was a re-match of last year’s Championship Tournament finals. The last game of the day pitted the 2017 champions against one of the more impressive squads to debut in quite a while. In between those two games at Mid Atlantic Wiffle’s 2018 Opening Day tournament, we saw veteran teams struggle, new clubs make their mark, returning teams re-tool, and newcomers impress with their play. If the chaotic and competitive tournament is a harbinger of what’s in store for the rest of the season, we are in for one wild summer in the Mid Atlantic!
One of the joys of tournament Wiffle Ball is the discovery of new and talented teams. For most teams, it takes time – a couple of tournaments, maybe a couple of seasons – to transform into regular contenders. It is rare for a team to show up at a highly competitive tournament for the first time and fire on all cylinders. After Saturday, there is another team to add to the list.
The Naturals – a very appropriately named foursome from Virginia – made their major competitive Wiffle Ball tournament debut this Saturday in York. The team is comprised of the Herbek brothers – Brian, Dave, and Matt – along with Jason Lombardozzi. There are players with major collegiate baseball experience on the team, with Dave having starred at James Madison University and Lombardozzi at the University of Florida. The player’s baseball backgrounds were evident all day long in their business like and polished approach to every at bat.
Baseball accomplishments aside, the Naturals entered Saturday with little competitive Wiffle Ball experience, save for a single tournament a decade earlier. Undaunted, the team cerebrally took down one experienced pitcher after another. Adam Milsted (Way Too Beautiful), Connor Young (My Name is ERL), and Ben Stant (GCM), all fell victim to the newcomers on their march to the title game. Even the one veteran pitcher that managed to defeat The Naturals before the championship – the Stompers’ Nick Schaefer – was not entirely immune to the team’s impressive power. The Naturals hit six homeruns during the tournament – all no-doubters and all coming in big moments. Their approach at the plate and bigtime power was the talk of the tournament.
“We didn’t play in the pool with the Naturals but man can they hit!” Barrel Bruisers captain Jerry Hill told The Drop when asked which players or teams he hadn’t previously seen made an impression on him. “What impressed me most is how they adjusted even when fooled. They know how to drop their lower half and battle. These guys have obviously taken a lot of hacks in their lifetime and as they see more Wiffle pitches and get their timing they will be deadly.”
The Naturals proved they were far from a one trick pony on Saturday. Three out of the four team members took to the rubber and all three pitched reasonably well. Leading the way for the Naturals pitchers was tournament MVP Matt Herbek. Matt pitched three complete games for The Naturals and part of a fourth, covering 14 1/3 innings in total. On the day, Matt allowed just run one on three hits. Prior to the title game, he had allowed just two hits and no runs. Throwing a variety of pitches with very good velocity and solid break, Matt went right at opposing hitters all day long. He allowed just ten walks the entire tournament and only six before the championship game. Both Lombardozzi and Dave Herbek showed serious potential on the rubber, although both struggled to limit the free passes. The team fielded well. They made the routine plays and turned at least one double play like seasoned Wiffle Ball pros.
If the Natural’s hitting abilities were the talk of the tournament, their well-roundedness was a close second. When asked for a team – past or present – that The Naturals reminded him of, Stompers’ captain Tim Cooke was unable to provide a direct answer.
“They really don't remind me of a specific team from the past or present. Not too many teams have their pitching quality and line up where everyone can contribute.”
Cooke received an up-close look at The Naturals, as they matched up with the Stompers in both pool play and again in the tournament championship. In the first meeting, the Stompers handed the ball to veteran Nick Schaefer. The 38-year old –criminally underrated his entire Wiffle career – found his pitching duties reduced to a one or two game matchup role this season with the return of Jordan Robles and the addition of Chris Sarnowski. Schaefer has as much big game pitching experience as any pitcher in the region and was up to the task against an opponent who to that point in the tournament hadn’t lost and hadn’t been scored upon. Schaefer came at The Naturals with a great game plan and even better execution, keeping them off balance for most of the four-inning game. Three walks and a two-run homerun off the bat of Dave Herbek were the only blemishes on Nick’s record that game. Schaefer also shined at the plate, hitting a two-run shot in the second inning that put the Stompers ahead for good.
“The biggest game of the day for us was game three against The Naturals,” Cooke recounted after the tournament. “Lose to them, we play Ben Stant in the semi-finals instead of the Cuban Raft Riders. Also wanted to put Nick in a situation where he could test where he is at physically. Had no doubt he would deliver and that was a really good hitting team . . . He [Schaefer] is very crafty and understands how to pitch. He doesn't have the velocity that he once had, but he has the pitching knowledge to know what he needs to do to compensate.”
In the finals, the Stompers went with their relatively fresh ace, Robles, against Matt Herbek, who had already worked more than ten innings on the day. That heavy workload may have taken its toll on Matt, as he was uncharacteristically wild in the first inning. He loaded the bases on walks with one out, before walking the number five hitter, Paul Cooke, to plate an early run. Matt recovered and allowed only one hit – a third inning triple by Paul – but the damage had already been done.
Robles – who threw just four stress-free innings prior to the title game – pitched a brilliant game. Relying heavily on a low sidearm drop, Robles kept a dangerous lineup off balance for all five innings. Jordan did not allow a hit or a walk the entire game and came one 5th inning groundball out short of an all strikeouts perfect game.
The victory gave the Stompers their third straight tournament victory (including October’s Championship Tournament) and an early lead in what promises to be a long and winding playoff race. The team received contributions up and down the lineup and were the only unit to have three different pitchers win a game. As impressive as his team was in victory, Cooke was equally as impressed with the Stompers’ championship game opponents.
“The finals against Jordan wasn't representative of what they [The Naturals] were doing all day. That's also a statement about how good Jordan was in the finals. Fourteen strikeouts with only one ball put into play against a team that had homered in all four prior games . . . I hope they [The Naturals] come back. Those games were a ton of fun and they have the chance to be a very special team.”
Veteran Teams Struggle
It was a difficult opening tournament for several veteran and returning teams.
My Name is ERL dropped a pair of 1-0 heartbreakers to The Naturals and Stompers in the loaded A-Block, before salvaging their tournament with a win against Way Too Beautiful. The story in both losses was one pitch from Connor “Soup” Young – a riser in both cases – that brought in the games’ only runs.
“I wouldn't have thrown that riser that's for sure,” Soup stated when asked what – if anything – he might have done differently in the tournament. “Both games we lost were on the riser. I felt really good, I just missed a couple spots. Both were good pieces of hitting . . . I just know I could have avoided it. I'll learn from it and be back tougher at the next event.”
Things also did not go quite as planned for another New Jersey squad, Way Too Beautiful. The veteran club was stuck in the difficult A Block and were swept out of the tournament in three straight. Adam Milsted was the first victim of The Naturals’ bats, Ian Crosby fell 5-2 to the Stompers, and Brett Poulton lost 1-0 to ERL in the Battle for New Jersey. The tournament was likely the only appearance for W2B in Mid Atlantic this year, as Adam Milsted will be playing the remainder of the season on the York Yaks (the move was announced prior to the tournament and W2B were therefore not eligible to earn playoff points this tournament).
Speaking of the Yaks, Opening Day was a tournament they would like to quickly move on from. The 2017 MAW regular season champions went 0-3, losing a six-inning extra inning game to GCM in the opener, dropping a wild back-and-forth contest against the Bruisers 14-11, and falling just short of a fourth inning comeback against the Cuban Raft Riders.
Despite the outcome, Yaks’ captain Nick Shirey saw positives in the Yaks’ first tournament of the year, while still recognizing the need for improvement.
“Overall, I am happy with our performance. We outhit every team we played without question. The walks did us in. [Jarod] Bull was rusty but it was a good warmup . . . We were short on arms due to availability and some injuries but we battled all day. Pottsy [Dan Potter] was Pottsy. I only remember him getting out 3-4 times all day.”
Indeed, Potter’s hitting provided a major bright spot to a disappointing tournament for the Yaks. The 2017 Jerome “The Legend” Coyle hitting award winner put up an almost unbelievable slash line of .625/.714/1.438. As Shirey alluded to, Potter only made five outs all day, otherwise reaching base in 21 of his 26 plate appearances.
First Timers Thrive
Except for the Stompers, the final four consisted entirely of teams playing in their first MAW tournament.
The Ben Stant led GCM went undefeated in pool play, taking down the Yaks, Raft Riders, and Bruisers along the way. Stant handled most of the pitching for his team, with newcomer John Magee handling the pitching duties in a mercy rule shortened game against the Bruisers. Magee flashed a solid rising fastball in his debut. There is clearly room for growth and if he sticks it out, he has the upside to form a formidable one-two punch with Stant. Markus Lee showed off some impressive power late in the tournament. A high leg kick that he uses as a timing device makes him susceptible to off speed offerings, but he does some real damage when he makes contact. Stant hit all day long and logged a tournament leading fifteen innings on the mound. If GCM can find another reliable pitcher – either McGee or someone from the outside – they will become an immediate title contender (if they are not already).
The motley crew that is the Cuban Raft Riders gritted their way into the final four with a 2-1 record before running out of steam against the Stompers in the semi-finals. Led by the arm and bat of Jimmy Cole, the Raft Riders picked up a pair of close victories against the Barrel Bruisers (1-0) and Yaks (4-3).
Other players, including the Yaks’ Shirey, took notice of Cole’s ability on and off the field.
“Kid [Cole] has got a bat to be reckoned with. Great guy and Wiffle ambassador, too. I hope to see him again for a rematch.”
The team lacked the pitching depth to make a deep run but Cole kept them in the running for as long as he could. J.J. Neely managed only a third of an inning on the mound against GCM, which pushed T.J. Hannon into emergency relief duty (a task he handled very well). Three of the four Raft Riders play in leagues in and around the Wiffle heavy Wilkes Barre area. If they can find another pitcher – or two if Cole’s appearance with the team is a one-time deal – they have the nucleus needed to be a team that consistently contends for a playoff round spot.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of Opening Day was just how many talented players made their Mid Atlantic debuts. In addition to those already discussed, three other debuting players turned some heads on Saturday.
It was more than five years ago that Collin Dimitris played alongside Connor Young in the Golden Stick fast pitch league. Following a lengthy absence from the sport, Dimitris got in touch with Young this winter. Young referred his old teammate to Hill and the Barrel Bruisers, who were in the market for another pitcher to pair with Chris Owen. Dimitris had a solid debut as a Bruiser and it is evident that once he shakes some of the dust off, he will be a vital member of the Bruiser’s lineup.
Hill was most impressed with Dimitris’ composure on the mound under tough circumstances.
“Collin showed his grit game two versus the Yaks. We were down 0-8, he gave up two dingers to Shirey and another to Potter in the first two innings. That could weigh on a pitcher but he kept his head in the game and we battled back at the plate. In the bottom of the 4th he was struggling a bit, bases loaded, one out in a three-run game and he had already given up two runs. I made a trip to the mound to see how he was feeling. I looked him in the eyes and asked if was ready to win this game. Without hesitation he said I’ve got this. BOOM, he did it!”
The Stompers spent much of this past winter debating whether to add another player to an already crowded roster. The team finally made its move in March, bringing on second generation wiffler Chris Sarnowski. “Red” made an immediate impact in his Stomper’s debut, shutting out My Name is ERL in the opener and then defeating Way Too Beautiful for an encore. The flame throwing right-hander also carries a big stick, adding another bat to a Stompers’ lineup that can often run hot and cold.
Tim Cooke was impressed with his new acquisition’s all-around game.
"I knew Chris had a good bat. Also knew he had a good arm, plus velocity, with the control being an issue at times. He scattered the walks and his raw fastball riser has enough on it that he was able to balance the walks by getting swings and misses instead of contact. He had a lot of good at bats. My biggest take away was that he also had a plan at the plate. Execution is a little easier with a plan. Took his walks and passed the baton.”
The most anticipated newcomer was ERL’s Blake Hoffman. While February’s Winter Classic tournament marked Hoffman’s official MAW/east coast debut, Saturday was his first action in a hotly contested, regular season tournament. The Ohio native came into the tournament with a big reputation and big expectations. While ERL’s early exit limited the southpaw to just one game, he nonetheless turned a lot of heads with the bigtime stuff he showed in a 1-0, 12 strike out win over Way Too Beautiful.
When asked what he believes Hoffman’s ceiling is as a pitcher, ERL captain Connor Young replied that he didn’t “want to gas up Blake too much” before doing just that and heaping a considerable amount of praise on the youngster.
“This kid is the future. I refuse to put a ceiling on his potential because I really don't think there's anything he won't be able to do on the mound as he gets better with each outing. You can’t compare him to anyone. He's six-foot-four, lefthanded, and throws every pitch fast. Mix that with his phenomenal work ethic and you've got a once in a generation type player. He's gonna get a lot of game experience this summer. I know he'll be giving people fits in Texas. Everybody will see a little more what I'm talking about next time he toes the rubber.”
Here and There
The Wiffle weather gods were exceedingly kind on Saturday, fitting in a perfectly sunny, 80-degree day in the middle of what has been an unseasonably cold April in the Mid-Atlantic region . . . Just how competitive was this tournament? An amazing 13 out of 15 games were decided by 3 runs or less . . . Between the Winter Classic and Saturday’s Opening Day Tournament, Dan Potter has faced Jimmy Cole eight times. Potter has four hits and three homeruns – including a pair in one inning on Saturday – off Cole during that span . . . If we told you that the Stompers would bat .284/.479/.657 as a team, score 20 runs, and run the table on Saturday with Jordan Robles batting .125/.364/.312, how many of you would have believed us? . . . The Yaks’ slow start is nothing new to them. Last year the team’s record stood at 2-8 midway through the third tournament. From there they went on a 7-game winning streak, won two straight tournaments, and finished the year as the top seeded team heading into the playoffs . . . Relief appearances don’t receive much attention in this sport, but T.J. Hannon’s 2 1/3 shutout innings in relief of J.J. Neely against GCM was as big as they come. His innings gave his team a shot at a comeback and more importantly, allowed Cole to rest before a crucial game three against the Yaks.
“I was looking for something I could see. In my first at bat, I got a drop on the inside half of the zone and then a ephus curve. I didn't really see anything well the next couple of at bats. When I finally got the riser, I was able to see it and put it in play.” – Tim Cooke on what he was looking for before his game winning triple off Connor Young
“We’ve gotten as far as we possibly could with one pitcher.” – A resigned Jimmy Cole (paraphrased) as he pulled himself from the semi-finals against the Stompers after surrendering a 3-run homerun to Sarno.
“As for our hitting, I want to say we were just shaking off the rust, but we didn't put together one good inning with the bats all day. We need to start swinging at better pitches. The bats won't stay quiet for long, especially with Gerard [Fitzgerald] back in the lineup.” – Soup on his team’s struggles at the plate (1 run scored in 3 games)
“These guys appear to be the real deal. From what I watched, it looked like they can rake and I am sure that will only improve with more tourneys. Their ace was throwing cheese and with control. If their arms hold up, I predict this team will win MAW in 2018.” – Shirey with a bold prediction about The Naturals
“It would be nice to have that first game back, of course all 0-1 losers say that! Chris pitched a no-hitter but had 4 walks the first inning, that was the game. We caught Jimmy Cole fresh and he kept our timing off and shut us out. Knowing we were in that game gives me the confidence that we can occasionally compete. I know the top tier teams will be tough to beat, especially if we face their ace. However, since we are a mid-tier team we might face more #2 and #3’s and give us a chance to sneak to a 2-1 bracket record. We don’t have the traditional shutdown ace and will need to put up more runs to compete.” – Jerry Hill on his team’s first game and how it impacts his outlook for the Bruisers’ season.
There is no rest for the weary, as we’ve got a quick turnaround to the next tournament on May 5th. MAW celebrates Cinco de Mayo with the second tournament of the 2018 regular season, Torneo de Wiffs. Many of the area’s regular teams will be back in action on the 5th and we hear it will be the season debut of everyone’s favorite underdogs, the InHumans, as they continue their quest for an elusive first win. There are rumors that at least one experienced trio might be heading to York on the 5th as well. There are only a few spots remaining for the tournament, so don’t miss this early season opportunity to pick up crucial playoff points!
Outside of MAW, be sure to check out the 14th Annual BWBL Charity Classic May 12th in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The tournament will take place a the beautiful Diamond City Park wiffleball field. All proceeds go to charity and the cost is just $10 per player. The format is two player teams with a double elimination round following an opening pool play round. Check out their Facebook page for more information and to register.