No more than sixty seconds after striking out the Longball’s Dylan Harshaw to win MAW’s Backyard Brawl tournament, Connor Young fell to the ground next to Sheff Field and lied there for a moment, exhausted.
The four-game pool play schedule and hot and humid conditions enervated almost every player, but it was an especially taxing day for ERL’s captain. Young threw all twenty-six innings for his two-man squad, came up with big hit after big hit, made several key defensive plays, and did not allow a single run along the way. On top of all of that, Connor had to twice navigate his way through a hungry and relentless Longballs lineup. That type of workload will sap the strength out of even the best conditioned athletes.
“That was certainly the most exhausted I’ve ever been after a tournament. I was drained,” Young told The Drop via text message. “I was honestly running on fumes those last three innings of the championship.”
The tournament had a throwback feel to it for ERL. Young took the ball from the first pitch to the last out with only Joe Schlindwein by his side, just as he did most of last summer. The Connor Young we saw on Saturday, however, was not the same player from 2017 who burned himself out by going a mile-a-minute each game of every tournament. This was not even the same player we saw earlier this season – a player who at times pressed too hard at the plate and who on several occasions allowed a single mistake pitch to turn into a hard luck loss.
At Backyard Brawl, Connor avoided the pitfalls that occasionally plagued him in the past. He judiciously navigated his way through opposing lineups. He added and subtracted as necessary to ensure that his arm would hold up through the long and humid day. Connor took care of business at the plate and saw to it that games would not be lost on one pitch. His pitch selection was – at times – impeccable. The result was arguably Young’s best all-around tournament in Mid Atlantic and ERL’s first MAW tournament title since the team’s MAW debut last June.
The path to ERL’s second MAW championship was a tough one, beginning with their first game of the day versus the Longballs from Ridley Park, PA. After competing in tournaments in May and June with suboptimal rosters, the Longballs arrived at Backyard Brawl with a foursome (Dylan Harshaw, Sean Bingnear, Tyler Nachbar, and Colin Pollag) that can match talent with any team in most any field. The Longballs’ roster on Saturday was at least three pitchers deep, which allowed them to throw their top starter – Bingnear – against ERL without having to worry about how that might impact their ability to compete later in the day.
As expected, a classic pitcher’s duel ensued between Young and Bingnear. The game breezed through the first three frames. Several half innings were over in a blink of an eye as the pitchers pounded the zone with strike after strike. Young did so with his full assortment of pitches while Bingnear relied mainly on a screwball-fastball-side arm drop combination. In the 4th, the Longball hitters got a read on Young and strung together some quality at bats that resulted in a pair of base runners. Armed with a 3-1 total base lead, the Longballs headed to the 5th inning with a chance to score a signature win.
For the second time in as many tournaments – the first coming in June against Cloud9 – Bingnear entered the 5th inning with a chance to pick up a major upset against a top team. Unfortunately for him and the Longballs, it was once again not meant to be. Joe led off the inning with a big walk. The base on balls allowed the ridiculously clutch Young an opportunity to deliver, which he did by smacking a double into the right field corner. The hit – which came with nobody out in the inning – gave ERL a one base lead and a big scoring opportunity. To Bingnear’s credit, he hit right back at ERL and set the next three batters down in order. The damage had been done, however, and in the bottom half of the inning Soup went into lockdown mode. He retired the Longballs in order to pick up the big early pool play win.
With one major challenge out of the way, Young settled into a groove for the rest of the round. He maneuvered his way through the offenses of the Barrel Bruisers and Revolution and used the extra at bats that come with playing as a two-man team to get into a routine at the plate. That routine, as usual, consisted of a lot of free swinging. Perhaps even more so than usual, Young was aggressive at the plate chasing – and often hitting – pitches six inches outside the zone. To round out pool play, ERL downed the Yaks to improve to a perfect 4-0.
Elsewhere, the Jersey Lemon Heads - led by another excellent pitching performance from ace Ray Lutick - also swept through pool play at a perfect 4-0 with victories over the Bruisers, Shortballs, Revolution, and Yaks. Both Jersey teams had one total base win to their names, so the top seed came down to run differential which ERL took by several runs. The 3-1 Longballs picked up the third seed while the 2-2 Yaks were given an immediate rematch against ERL.
A fresh – as fresh as one can be after playing six hours in the sticky late summer heat – Jarod Bull took the mound for the Yaks. The Yaks’ game plan of holding back Bull and sneaking into the elimination round anyway possible played out to near perfection. They entered the semi-finals with the no pitches thrown by their ace, something no other team in the field could boast.
The matchup between Bull and Young is one of the great pitcher-batter rivalries in MAW’s brief history. Bull and the Yaks got the better of it last August and September with wins over ERL in the finals and semi-finals, respectively. Connor got his payback in last October’s Championship Tournament and has carried that momentum into this season. Young continued to be a thorn in Bull’s side on Saturday, hitting two more home runs off him. It would have been three, if not for a sensational catch by the newest Yak, Jordan Reichard, who tumbled over the center field fence on Buffalo while holding onto the ball. The offensive explosion gave Connor some breathing room on the carpet and he made relatively easy work out of the Yaks to the reach the finals.
ERL’s win set up a re-match with the Longballs in the tournament championship and like the first encounter between these two teams, this one did not disappoint.
Armed with the valuable information on Young’s pitching style that they picked up six hours earlier, the Longballs launched a consistent, patient, and relentless offensive attack. When Young was over the plate, the Longball hitters were ready to pounce. They picked up five hits and only some quality defensive plays by ERL’s defense kept them from more. The Longballs loaded the bases in the fourth with only one out and had runners on in three out of five innings. Perhaps even more impressively, the Longball batters refused to offer at almost any pitcher’s pitches off the plate. All four members of the team had a tremendous read on Young and they forced him to beat them with strikes.
To Young’s credit, that is exactly what he did. Connor and Joe pounced on any balls put in play. As the Ridley Park batters fouled off pitch after pitch, Young continued to mix it up until he was able to sneak one by them. Due to the consistently tough at bats put together by the Longballs – even when the end result was not in their favor – this was the type of game that played out far more impressively in actuality than it does in the box score.
“The Ridley Park crew made me work harder than anyone all day, in both games. All of them are experienced Wiffle Ball hitters and were making adjustments throughout the game,” Young remarked about his title game opponents. “I tip my hat to those guys. They’re very, very good Wiffle Ball players and anyone who doesn’t know that is in for a rude awakening.”
Bingnear once again toed the rubber for the Longballs and – once again – was on the receiving end of a tough loss. ERL used the same combination they used in the first game – a walk from Joe and an extra base hit by Soup – to score the game’s only run. That combination of clutch-hitting and shutdown pitching gave ERL its first title in over a year.
“We were fully determined to win this tourney,” Young stated matter-of-factly the Monday after the tournament.
On an individual level, Connor’s single-day performance moved him ahead of the Stompers’ Chis Sarno in most Mid Atlantic pitching categories for the season, including innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA (min. 20 innings pitched/avg. one game per tournament). He once again proved why he is among the very best players in the game right now. Perhaps more importantly, the tournament win moved ERL six points ahead of the Stompers in the season point standings. With only one tournament to go, ERL now has a tight grip on the top spot in September’s Championship Tournament.
Ridley Park Talent On Display
It took a couple of tournaments to get there, but the Ridley Park Longballs broke through at Backyard Brawl by not just advancing the semi-finals for the first time, but also by coming within one run of their first tournament title. The most impressive aspect of the Longballs tournament was their balance. The team got quality innings and two wins out of Pollag and Nachbar, while Bingnear did the heavy lifting against ERL.
Bingnear entered the tournament as the most ballyhooed of the current Longballs thanks to his strong starts against tough teams like Cloud9, In the Box, and New School Risers. His 1-5 record in MAW competition is very deceptive. A look below the surface reveals a pitcher on the verge of a major breakout. MAW Tournament Director Tim Cooke – drawing from his first-hand experience with Stomper lefty Dan Isenberg a decade and a half ago – is fond of pointing out how a string of one-run losses to quality teams by a young pitcher is often a sign that success is just around the corner. Bingnear’s five losses include a 1-0 extra inning loss to the reigning Fast Plastic champions Cloud9, a total base loss to ERL, an extra-inning walk off loss to Dave Capobianco and the New School Risers, a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Tom LoCascio of In the Box, and a 1-0 loss to ERL in Saturday’s championship game. If Tim’s theory is correct, Sean is in store for big things very soon.
At the plate, Dylan Harshaw picked up right where he left off at the NWLA Tournament with another above average offensive display. All four Longballs showed off average to above average patience and contact hitting, with flashes of power. That trifecta is rare in a single player, nonetheless on an entire team. The Longballs did not blow a routine play the entire tournament in easily a dozen chances. At Backyard Brawl, the Longballs proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can and will contend on a regular basis in MAW.
As impressive as the Longballs performance was, it was the play of Ridley Park Wiffleball League’s second team – the Shortballs – that hammered home just how talented of a league it is. This young team – all of their players are still in high school – went 1-3 but lost in six innings to the Yaks on total bases, came up just short against the Longballs, and hung in there against the Lemon Heads. Frankie Campanile, Ryan Drecher, and Nate Smith all impressed on the carpet, Vinny Albanese displayed plus power potential, and Joey Van Houten was a tough out the entire tournament. If we see more of the Shortballs next season, it stands to reason that they will follow a similar path to the Longballs and be contending by mid-year. The Shortballs have the pitching to compete now and their bats should only improve with additional reps.
Here and There
As is the case for many first-time tournament players, Gino Joseph’s control issues spoiled his debut but he has no intentions of letting that slow him down. Already ahead of the curve with a nice 3-pitch mix, Gino wrote Tuesday on Instagram: “First time ever . . . went 0-4 on the mound but it was one hell of an experience. Canonsburg in 12 days, then it takes off from there. Can’t wait to be one of the best” . . . The Jersey Lemon Heads are 7-1 in pool play in two MAW tournaments this year, but 0-2 in semi-final games. Including other organizations, they are 13-1 before the semi-finals this year and 0-3 with a chance at the championship game on the line. It is a question of when – not if – they will get over that hump . . . Consider this – just how scary might the Longballs be next year if they add a healthy Tommy Loftus to their lineup? . . . Last year, the Yaks’ Jarod Bull allowed one home run in 37 innings of work and that lone homer came in the Yaks’ last game of the year in the Championship Tournament. This year in 34 innings of work, the tall righty has already surrendered six home runs . . . Another Yak, Adam Milsted, flew under the radar on Saturday but was arguably the second most valuable player of the tournament. Milsted threw 15 innings for the Yaks, won two games, and lost a third on total bases to pitch his team into the playoffs . . . Best wishes to Milsted and Connor Young who celebrated birthdays this past week . . . How did Soup follow up his 26 innings of shutout ball on Saturday? By pitching 6 more against ERL teammate Dan Whitener in Palisades on Sunday . . . The Barrel Bruisers' season long struggle to pick up victories continued on Saturday but there are some continuing positive signs. Chris Owen continued to be difficult to hit when he was over the plate, Jerry Hill looks better on the rubber every single tournament, and Tony Manelli continues to collect his hits no matter the pitcher . . . The Lemon Heads used all four of their players on the flat hill this past weekend. If he can cut down the walks, Matt Cripse looks like a viable option for the Lemon Heads for pool play duty in a less competitive field. Also rumor has it that the team is already looking outside MAW to shore up their 2019 roster . . . It appears as if the Yaks will be without their captain, Nick Shirey, for the remainder of the season. Shirey is expected to undergo surgery later this month to repair a torn labrum he suffered at the Fast Plastic NCT nearly a decade and a half ago . . .Their two meetings on Saturday were not the first times members of the Longballs got an up close look at Soup's stuff. Young recently stopped by the Lot in Ridley Park to play a pick up game with some of the league's players.
Championship Tournament Update
With one regular season tournament remaining, the Championship Tournament field is nearly in place. Three teams – ERL, Stompers, and Yaks – have clinched a spot with four other teams vying for the final three spots. That is without mentioning the potential shakeup that could occur should a team outside of that group win in Canonsburg. For a more thorough account of where things stand going into the last tournament of the season, click here.
The season is down to its final tournament! MAW debuts in the Pittsburgh area next Saturday with the Canonsburg Classic. A competitive field is expected, including several teams hoping to improve or solidify a playoff spot. There are still slots available and registration will remain open to the end of the week. Don’t miss out on the last to compete in an open entry MAW tournament this summer!
After Canonsburg, all attention will turn towards the Championship Tournament on September 8th back in York. Not only will the second Mid Atlantic Champion being crowned on the day, the six teams involved will all vie for $2,500 in cash prizes! More information on this major tournament and how you can follow along from home in the coming weeks.