The high temperature in Medford, New Jersey this past Saturday was a chilly 30-degrees but inside the Big League Dreams Wiffle Ball complex, it sure looked a lot like summer.
A full eight-team field competed on Big League Dream’s custom indoor Wiffle Ball stadiums for the right to be crowned the first ever Mid Atlantic Wiffle Winter Classic champion. The tournament provided many of the competitors with their first live look at two of the game’s brightest young pitching prospects. Two local squads made their major northeast tournament debuts. One player attempted to return to the mound after an injury while a few others left Big League Dreams with newly acquired injury concerns. There were several classic pitching duels and a game where the teams combined for a whopping 44 runs. At the end of all of that action, it was the pre-tournament favorites that were left standing.
The tournament format was the standard eight-team fare with two pools of four teams for round robin play. The top two teams in each bracket advanced to a four-team single elimination round. The tournament field was slightly imbalanced in favor of quality veteran teams which left one pool – Pool A – with a decidedly tougher draw. Among the teams in Pool A were the experienced Golden Stick trio of Chris Sarnowski, Ben Stant, and Rob Longiaru playing under the team name, Fingerballzzzz. That team was expected to be even more potent, but Kevin Norris and Ty Wegerzn dropped out earlier week and replacement Phil Fresiello will apparently be in the market for a new alarm clock. Joining Fingerballzzzz in Pool A was an AWAA all-star team (Backdoor Sliders) of Jimmy Cole, Anthony LaValley, Michael VanNostrand, and Kris Morse with special guest TJ Loftus of Ridley Park Wiffleball and the veteran Re-Union team comprised of Dan Potter, Adam Milsted, and veterans Mike Soltesz, Lou Worthington, and Lou's nephew, Noah. With any one of those clubs serving as potential favorites, Pool A’s fourth team – El Flamas Blanca – had their work cut out for them.
Re-Union struck first in this high competitive pool taking down Fingerballzzzz 1-0 behind the superb pitching of Adam Milsted. Normally the captain of New Jersey mainstays Way Too Beautiful, Milsted provided much needed pitching depth to this veteran team. He kept the Sliders’ bats in check all game. Potter provided Milsted with all the runs he would need courtesy of a first inning leadoff homerun. Shortly after Potter’s blast, things went from bad to worse for the Sliders when Cole pulled himself from the game after suffering an apparent shoulder injury. The unfortunate injury did have one silver lining – it gave the spectators, which included several Ridley Park players, an earlier-than-expected look at TJ Loftus. The 19-year old made waves on the mound at the NWLA Pennsylvania regionals and the NWLA tournament last summer to the point that some folks already peg him as the second best pitcher in that circuit behind Michigan’s Stephen Farkas. Loftus made good on his reputation by retiring every single Re-Union player he faced via strikeout. His emergency relief heroics were not enough, however, as Milsted and company held on for the 1-0 shutout win.
El Flamas Blanca flashed definite signs of potential – one of their pitchers in particular has promise and their hitters never looked overmatched at the plate despite facing high caliber competition – but were ultimately overmatched on the day. Flamas Blanca finished the tournament without a win but with a little more pitching experience they will be just fine.
After a disappointing start, the Sliders bounced back against Fingerballzzzz thanks to an excellent outing from Kris Morse. Morse – a member of the Palisades Expos alongside Cole – held Stant, Longiaru, and Sarno in check all game long. The Backdoor Sliders took the lead early and added to it in the fourth courtesy of a Jimmy Cole grand slam. The win put the upstate New York squad right back into contention.
As many predicted, Pool A came down to the 1:30 PM showdown between Re-Union and Fingerballzzzz. With the Sliders already sitting pretty at 2-1, a Re-Union win would eliminate Fingerballzzzz. On the opposite side of the coin, a Fingerballzzzz win of ten runs or more would catapult them from the brink of elimination to the top seed in the bracket. The Ballzzzz handed the ball to Stant, who kept Re-Union in check all game long. Meanwhile, Adam Milsted was tasked with pitching a second important round robin game after both Potter and Worthington looked shaky in warms up. While not quite as good as he was against the Sliders to start the tournament, Milsted still carried solid stuffy but was let down by the play of his defensive. The Fingerballzzzz jumped out to a commanding lead and never looked back. The trio grabbed the ten-run win they needed and suddenly found themselves atop Pool A with the best run differential (the head-to-head tiebreaker was itself a tie). In the play-in game for the Block’s second spot, the Sliders put down a battered Re-Union team to move onto the semi-finals.
Over in Pool B, things were not quite as dramatic. Sophomore team The Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies showed noticeable improvement from their MAW debut last September. Evan Rosenthal flashed a previously unseen slider while his brother, Cory, once again showed off a strong arm that with some refinement could turn him into a solid pitcher. Offensively, the Duckies flashed their muscles against Sauce Squad by putting up 18 runs in a loss. With a little more experience and confidence facing top tier pitching, they will start to put up some runs against veteran teams as well. For their part, Sauce Squad packed a punch up and down their lineup to go along a couple of pitchers that showed off potentially solid sliders. Sauce Squad has extensive experience, but only on a shorter (33 feet) mound. We hope to see both Sauce Squad and the Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies back on the field this summer.
Pool B came down a 10:30 AM match up between My Name is ERL and the Giants. The Giants were the pre-emptive favorites to win the tournament but had to get through ERL in pool play first. ERL captain Connor Young handed the ball to debuting southpaw Blake Hoffman. The Ohio native gained a following over the years thanks to his backyard bullpen sessions and signed with ERL during the offseason. In only his second tournament ever and facing top tier competition in the form of the McElrath brothers and Jordan Robles, Hoffman showed that that the hype surrounding him is justified. The lefty used a wide assortment of pitches, including a rarely used riser that he had working on Saturday. The riser started so low that more than a few veteran hitters gave up on it, only for it to rise at the last second and nick the bottom part of the target strike zone. Ultimately, the Giants worked the young pitcher for three runs and ERL dropped the game, but with additional tournament experience Hoffman will blossom into a top tier pitcher.
ERL bounced back from the loss to post a 2-1 record in round robin and second place in their block. The 3-0 Giants took the first seed and chose to play their semi-final opponents – the Backdoor Sliders – on Fenway while ERL battled Finkerballzzzz on the Philly field.
Connor Young took the mound for ERL, relatively fresh after allowing Hoffman to handle much of the round robin pitching duties. It was far from Young’s best outing and ERL fell into an early hole. ERL crawled back to tie the game at 3-apiece when Young followed a Gerard Fitzgerald single with a two-run blast over the left center field wall. The game did not stay tied for very long. The next inning Young – struggling with the command of his riser – allowed back-to-back home runs to Sarno and Longiaru to once again give Fingerballzzzz the lead. Shortly thereafter, Young pulled himself from the game citing shoulder pain and Hoffman finished out what would end up being a 7-3 Fingerballzzzz win.
On Fenway, the Giants made relatively easy work of the Sliders to set up a meeting with Fingerballzzzz in the championship game. Both teams managed to reach the finals with a fresh pitcher – Ryan McElrath for the Giants and Rob Longiaru for Fingerballzzzz. Both pitchers were well rested and it showed early on, as the game breezed through the first three frames with little in the way of offense. In the fourth, Longiaru got a hold of one of McElrath’s offerings and sent the ball rocketing towards the right-center field fence. Before the ball could reach the wall, however, it banged off one of the ceiling beams some 30+ feet in the air and fell into the infield where it was cleanly played for an out in accordance with the tournament ground rules. Turnabout is fair play and in the 5th inning, the ceiling robbed the Giants of what also looked like a surefire homerun but ended up being nothing more than a loud force out.
The game entered the 7th inning still scoreless. As the innings ticked by, so did the clock. With a hard curfew of 6:30 PM, it was announced prior to the game that a new inning would not be allowed to start after 6:00 PM. The Giants took to the plate for the bottom of the bottom of the 7th around 5:40 PM, which meant that if the game stayed tied the eighth inning would likely also be the final one.
Fortunately, Jordan Robles made sure the curfew would not be a factor.
After one quick out to start the 7th, Robles stepped into the batter’s box and immediately fell behind. He refused to offer at the second pitch – a pitch that did not miss inside by much – signaling to Longiaru that he was going to have to bring the ball over the plate. Rob did just that – perhaps too much – and Robles deposited the hanger over the “Green Monster” in left field for the walk off home run.
The Giants were impressive all tournament long, taking down a trio of tough teams (My Name is ERL, Backdoor Sliders, and Fingerballzzzz) on the way to the title. Ryan McElrath showed the grit and skills that made him the 2017 Palisades WBL MVP while Robles – who in addition to his home run heroics, pitched 3 of the first 4 games for his team – demonstrated again why he is one of the best players around. For their effort, the Giants took home the $450 first place cash prize and the title of the first ever MAW Winter Classic champions.
1. Giants (NY) 5-0
Ryan McElrath, Tim McElrath, Jordan Robles
2. Fingerballzzzz (NY/PA/DE) 4-1
Rob Longiaru, Chris Sarnowski, Ben Stant
3. Backdoor Sliders (NY) 3-2
Jimmy Cole, Anthony LaValley, TJ Loftus, Kris Morse, Michael VanNostrand
4. My Name is ERL (NJ/OH) 2-2
Blake Hoffman, Gerard Fitzgerald, Jim Linhart, Joe Schlindwein, Connor Young
5. Re-Union (PA/NJ) 2-2
Adam Milsted, Dan Potter, Mike Soltesz, Lou Worthington, Noah
6. Sauce Squad (PA) 1-2
Kyle Brocket, Bryan Goldman, Blank Fink, Jason Fink, Christian Kulczytzky
7. El Flamas Blanca (NJ) 0-3
Neil Demarco, Paul Duffy, Kyle Fenwick, Rob Hanstien, Nate Potts
8. Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies (NJ) 0-3
Connor Benus, Danny Devine, Cory Rosenthal, Evan Rosenthal, Steve Rosenthal
Jimmy Cole (shoulder) was removed from his team’s first round game with shoulder soreness and did not pitch again in the tournament. Cole did continue to bat and play the field, which is a positive sign . . . Dan Potter (shoulder) left his team’s third round robin game after colliding with the wall while making a spectacular catch on a ball that ricocheted off the ceiling. Potter sat out the remainder of the tournament due to a shoulder injury . . . Connor Young (shoulder) pulled himself from ERL’s semi-final game due to shoulder soreness as well and was listed as day-to-day after the tournament . . . Tim McElrath – who went down early last season in Palisades with an arm injury – pitched one game for the Giants but was noticeably still less than 100% . . . Jenkins (knee) of the Sauce Squad tore up the skin on his right knee diving for a ball on the Philly field but played through it.
Here and There
While Big League Dreams is unparalleled in its ability to provide a high-level Wiffle Ball experience indoors, the facility is not without its quirks. The short fences on the Philly field (60 feet down the lines) led to some relatively “cheap” home runs while the ceilings (30+ feet high) took several no doubters away. In the end, however, it largely seemed to even out . . . Mike “Salt” Soltesz was an important member of the only three-time national champions, Team Trenton, and joined the legendary Lakeside Kings in the early 2000’s. Making his return to the mound in Medford, Salt battled his command at times but still showed off an excellent drop pitch that made one of the game’s best. Salt picked up a win in his only game on the mound on Saturday . . . In lieu of a coin, the phone of ERL’s Jim Linhart was tossed before several games to decide home and away . . . In accordance with standard MAW rules, any ball that rolled to the wall was a double. The smaller dimensions – particularly on the Philly field – and the fast-moving turf contributed to most untouched ground balls finding their way to the wall. When MAW returns to BLD in the future this rule is expected to be altered in some fashion . . . The Backdoor Sliders were accompanied to the tournament by some of TJ Loftus’ fellow Ridley Park Wiffleball players. We hope to see these guys out in York this spring & summer . . . Just prior to injuring his shoulder diving into the outfield wall, Dan Potter (Re-Union) pointed out that what both teams initially thought was an inning-ending put out was in fact a hit. Potter is not only one of the game's best defensive players, he is a class act to boot!
The 2018 Mid Atlantic Wiffle regular season kicks off on April 14th in York, PA with “Opening Day”. Two teams are already registered for the event, which will be capped at 10 teams. Don’t hesitate to register today! And if April 14th doesn’t work, MAW returns to York just three weeks later on Cinco de Mayo for the second tournament of the 2018 regular season. Registration for all six 2018 tournaments is open now at the MAW pro shop.
We want to once again thank the staff at Big League Dreams for being helpful and accommodating on Saturday. MAW officials are already discussing possible return dates to BLD for the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019. Look for more information later this year as it becomes available!