By Bob Behre
The Diamond Jacks Super 17 carried a two-run lead into the bottom of the seventh against a stubborn Full Count Prospects squad, squandered it and very nearly were sent home on the short end of a difficult decision.
But credit tournament Most Valuable Player Liam Cleary for putting out the fire and resurrecting the Super 17’s chances on the way to a 4-3 victory in eight innings in the 18U Blue Chip Prospects Red Bracket championship game.
Vanderbilt-bound shortstop Nick Maldonado delivered a go-ahead single in the top of the eighth to give Super 17 a lead it would not relinquish.
Hard throwing right-handed closer Pete Ciuffreda, who recently committed to Lafayette, started the seventh inning but could not find the plate, walking three batters around an infield single as Full Count shaved the deficit to 3-2. Ciuffreda turned it over to Cleary, who charged in from left field and was asked to protect a one-run lead with the bases loaded and no outs.
“That was the tightest position I’ve been put in as a reliever,” said the West Virginia-bound Cleary, who has had plenty of experience putting out fires for both the Super 17 squad and his high school team, Hopewell Valley. But Cleary is a known strike-thrower and that’s exactly what he did.
The first batter Cleary faced, Full Count’s leadoff batter Jordan Brown, lofted a sac fly to right field to score Josh Kunda from third with the tying run and chase the potential winning run to third base in the person of Chris Houser. Cleary then plunked Kyle Hoss in the helmet with a 1-0 pitch to reload the bases. As if there weren’t enough drama to that point, Cleary went to 3-2 on Shane Paradine before getting him to hit into a 3-2 force-out at home for the second out. Cleary got the next batter to fly out to left field to end the threat and send the game into extra innings.
“I was pretty calm,” said Cleary. “I was just trying to throw strikes and get out of it.”
Given new life, Super 17 went to work regaining the lead. Mike Nee drew a leadoff walk and reached second on a wild pitch issued when leadoff hitter Devin Hack offered a bunt. Cleary, who doubled home Hack in top of the first inning, reached on a bad hop single to third base with one out. Nee advanced to third on the hit. Maldonado then stepped in and launched a 1-0 fastball into the left-center field gap for a double that scored Nee. Cleary tried to score all the way from first base but was easily cut down by a perfect relay to the plate.
Full Count’s reliever Andres Tirso avoided further trouble from there as Cleary took the ball for the eighth with a chance to secure the championship.
Cleary made quick work of Full Count in the eighth, retiring the side in order on 11 pitches to nail down the championship for Super 17. Cleary retired six of the seven batters he faced, throwing 25 pitches, 17 of them strikes.
“Liam was amazing,” said Super 17 coach Kevin Cust. “He had to throw strikes to get us out of that jam. The tying run was on third with no outs and the winning run was on third with one out. That’s unbelievable.”
Felix Diaz, a rising senior at Immaculata, showcased his power potential in the fourth inning when he unloaded a two-run, opposite field home run to right to give Super 17 a 3-0 lead. Maldonado led off the inning and was hit by a pitch. Full Count (4-1-1 ) answered in the bottom of the fourth almost immediately when Hoss, the No. 2 hitter, hit a rope into the right-center field gap for a triple. Paradine followed with a fielder’s choice grounder to shortstop that scored Hoss and trimmed the deficit to 3-1.
Full Count ended a number of Super 17 threats with great defense. It turned a 3-3-6 double play in the second inning, erased a run with a heads-up play in the fifth and picked off a runner in a big spot in the sixth.
McGwire Tuffy had led off the fifth for Super 17 with a single to center field and advanced to second on a wild pick-off attempt. He appeared to be singled home by Nee, who was nailed trying to reach second on a 9-2-6 play. Full Count then appealed third saying Tuffy missed the bag when he rounded and headed for home. The umpire signaled out and the inning was over on two very quick outs.
Super 16 received strong pitching efforts by righties Dan Johnson and Tyler Tornberg. Johnson permitted one run on two hits, struck out two and walked one. The rising senior at Immaculata left after the fourth and a 50-minute rain delay. Tornberg, a rising senior at Chatham High, took the reins and shut out Full Count over the next two innings on two hits. He struck out none and walked two.
Super 17 (5-1) outscored its tournament opponents 26-9 and Full Count held a 28-13 runs advantage on its opponents.