By Bob Behre
Christian Hlinka will arrive at Virginia University on August 18 to start his college career after an abbreviated three years of high school. That will give Hlinka a couple weeks to savor his final at bat as a Diamond Jack.
Hlinka jumped on a 3-2 fastball with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning and sent it on a majestic ride over the right-center fence on Field 1 at Diamond Nation. The long three-run home run broke a 6-6 tie and gave the Super 17 squad a wild 9-6 victory over Gallagher Team Mizuno Upperclass on Friday afternoon. The victory secured the 18U Blue Chip Prospect Navy Bracket tournament championship for Super 17.
“Did you see that?” asked Hlinka, still a bit stunned himself after the home run. “To end my career here like that is unbelievable.” Hlinka has been a Diamond Jack since he was 12 years-old.
Hlinka’s Diamond Jacks career walk-off followed a clutch two-out, two-run game-tying single by cleanup hitter Brandon Hylton and capped a remarkable summer for a Super 17 squad that hit 26 home runs and registered a staggering 33-3 record.
“That was amazing,” said Super 17 coach Kevin Cust, himself glowing after Hlinka’s home run. “What a shot by Hlinka. And Brandon’s hit gets overshadowed. He’s been our best hitter all year and came through in the clutch again to tie it.”
Gallagher Team Mizuno Upperclass, a team with comparable might in its lineup, had erased a 4-0 Super 17 lead with three runs in the fourth inning and three in the sixth to take a 6-4 lead. But it was how Gallagher clawed back into the game that was stunning ... and thunderous.
David Bermudez rocked a two-run home run over the fence in left field to shave the Super 17 lead to 4-2 in the third inning. Then Kevin Eaise stepped in and unloaded a solo shot to draw Gallagher within a run. The back-to-back home runs were merely a foreshadowing of things to come for Gallagher.
Bermudez did it again in the sixth, hitting a two-run home to left to put Gallagher ahead, 5-4. Not to be outdone, Eaise hit an even deeper drive over the fence in left-center field for a solo shot and a 6-4 Gallagher lead. Bermudez and Eaise had gone back-to-back twice in the same game just two innings apart.
But what looked like a fascinating and entertaining story from the Gallagher side, turned on its heels in the bottom of the seventh.
“I’d have to say our mood was really low at that point,” said Hlinka. “But our bench picked us up as they have all summer.”
Michael Nee, Super 17’s No. 9 hitter, led off and was hit by a pitch. Brandon Rosenthal, the No. 10 hitter, then singled to right-center field, chasing Nee to third base. Rosenthal, however, tried to reach second when the throw from the outfield went to third, but he was erased on an 8-5-4 relay. That looked like a critical out, even with the top of the Super 17 order coming to the plate.
Leadoff batter Ryan Morash drew a walk and stole second with Colin Mason at the plate, putting the potential tying run in scoring position. Mason, however, popped out to shortstop for the second out, bringing up Vanderbilt-bound rising junior Nick Maldonado. Gallagher pitcher Greg Albert intentionally walked Maldonado to load the bases.
That brought the Stetson-bound Hylton to the plate who had been crushing the ball all summer. Albert fell behind 2-0 to Hylton then fired a fastball that the lefty-hitting first baseman sent on a line through the right side for a game-tying two-run single. The speedy Morash slid across home plate just ahead of the throw from right field.
“I was looking for a fastball and got one,” said Hylton.
Hlinka came up with runners on first and second and with an opportunity to end it right there. Albert fell behind 3-0 and it appeared to be an unintentional, intentional walk. But the righthander battled back to 3-2 before Hlinka fouled off the sixth pitch of the at bat.
“His only pitch that was working was his fastball,” said Hlinka. “I figured I’d get another one. I was looking to put the bat on the ball. Home runs are accidents. I was nervous. The adrenaline was exploding.”
When Hlinka got his fastball, everyone watching knew the blast was far enough to easily get Maldonado home from second with the winning run. They soon found out the blast was much farther than that, easily clearing the fence in right-center field for Hlinka’s first-ever walk-off home run and a season-ending championship for Super 17.
“It’s everyone’s dream to end a career that way,” said Hlinka, 3-for-4 in the game with four RBI and a run scored.
Eaise had a heck of a game. He overcome a rocky start on the mound to shut out Super 17 in the second, third and fourth innings before turning the game over to the Gallagher bullpen. He also went 3-for-3 with a single and the two home runs, drove in two runs and scored two runs.
Legends Prospects 16U defeated AP Academy 17U Prospects, 11-3, in the White Bracket championship game. Team Connecticut 18U Americans edged Baseball U., 2-1, for the Gold Bracket title. The Clubhouse Elite defeated All-Out Baseball, 9-3, in the Black final.
NOTES: Giovanni Ciaccio’s leadoff single preceded Bermudez’s home run in the third inning. Jack Tirrell’s leadoff single preceded Bermudez’s home run in the sixth. … Hlinka had an RBI double off the right field fence in the first inning and Hylton, who had walked, later scored on a balk … Luke Franzoni had an RBI double in the second for Super 17 and Morash’s fielder’s choice RBI groundout lifted the Super 17 lead to 4-0. … Tyler Diefenbach picked up the victory in relief for Super 17. … Super 17 (6-0) outscored its opponents in the tournament, 46-10. Gallagher (5-1) held a 40-20 advantage over its opponents. … Hylton reached base three times. He drew a walk and was hit by a pitch. He also scored twice and drove in two runs. … The 102-team tournament drew a staggering amount of college and pro scouts.