07/31/2022 12:28 AM
A wave of navy blue cut through the green grass at Shirley Povich Field on Saturday night as the Alexandria Aces won their first Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League championship by topping the Bethesda Big Train 5-3 in Game 2 to sweep the series.
The Aces stormed the field after relief pitcher Ryan Brown struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth. The celebration was the culmination of a long season of hard work and an uphill battle to take down the team normally viewed as the league's favorite every season.
“To beat a great team like the Big Train and Sal, so much respect for him,” Aces manager Chris Berset said. “I know he had some injuries in there, but then those boys put up a fight, top to bottom. It’s pretty cool for these guys to experience a little championship.”
After finishing the regular season on a seven-game win streak in which they outscored their opponents 64-27, Alexandria swept the Metro SOCO Braves in the semifinals before doing the same against Bethesda in the League Championship Series.
“Congratulations to them,” Big Train Manager Sal Colangelo said of the Aces’ first league title. And in speaking of their 11-game winning streak to end the season, “To win the first one is easy, but to win  in a row, it’s a lot harder, but they didn’t quit. Credit to [Aces manager] Chris [Berset] and his staff.”
Since the formation of the Ripken League in 2005, the Big Train have won nine titles, but history had little bearing on Saturday evening. The Aces couldn’t have asked for a more storybook ending, picking up the winning runs in the top of the ninth inning off an error, which allowed Dylan Koontz to score the winning run, and a Cade Sullivan solo home run for some insurance.
But as good as Alexandria has been this season — the Aces led the league in most offensive metrics — the championship series was punctuated by the players missing for the Green and White.
The Big Train played their final two matches without the services of center fielder Luke Nowak (East Carolina), injured in batting practice in the semifinals, shortstop Emilien Pitre (Kentucky), early departure and corner infielder Peyton Schulze (UC Berkeley), injured.
Nowak, Pitre and Schulze accounted for 30% of the team’s runs, 33% of the RBIs and 42% of the hits. And that doesn't even consider John Kramer (Ole Miss), who injured his hamstring before the end of the regular season and missed the whole postseason.
And before the opening pitch Saturday, third baseman TJ Rogers (Austin Peay State) was ruled out with back spasms. As a result, Colangelo penciled in pitchers Nicholas Del Prado (Florida Atlantic) and Erik Ritchie (East Carolina) on the list of available hitters.
“Obviously, we were shorthanded with nine players,” Colangelo said. “I’m proud of the boys that continued to fight, continued to battle. We were missing five regulars, but I’m really proud of the guys; they put everything out there.”
Missing several key hitters, utilityman Garrett Felix (Nicholls State), first baseman Sean Lane (Maryland) and catcher/right fielder Jason Schiavone (James Madison) buoyed the offense, going 5-for-10 with six runs, 6-for-13 with three stolen bases and 4-for-12 with five RBIs, respectively in the playoffs.
Despite playing against a depleted roster, Berset rolled out six different starting pitchers to stifle Bethesda’s order.
“Chris did a good job with mixing things up on the bump,” Colangelo said, “not going too long with the guys out there. They’re a good team, but they become a great team, and they get that energy, and they get guys on base.”
Starter Sasha Kamenjasevic went three innings with three strikeouts and four hits before the Big Train jumped on Josh Berenbaum for two runs in the fifth.
DM Jefferson (Notre Dame) singled, Lane walked before Clay Wargo (Louisiana Lafayette) and Baylor Cobb (Louisiana Tech) went single-double to bring in Jefferson and Lane. The Green and White scored again in the sixth — Trey Winget (St. Mary’s) scored on a bases-loaded walk to Lane — but Alexandria tied things up in the ensuing frame.
Both teams’ pitchers gave their side a chance to win. Colangelo called on Brandon Clarke (Alabama) to open, and the 6’4” southpaw gave the Train four strikeouts with one hit and one earned run, which came in the third, through four innings.
“My pitch count got a little too high, wanted to go out for another one or two [innings],” Clarke said. “I was able to come back on a lot of hitters, and that’s why I was able to get through four just giving up one hit. All around happy, had a couple of really good breaking balls and fastball was good.”
Clarke, who is working back from Tommy John surgery and an operation for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, pitched 26.2 innings this summer and finished with a 3.71 ERA, 29 strikeouts, 23 walks and 19 hits.
“This summer was big for me, coming into an environment where coaches really gave me an opportunity,” Clarke said. “I was able to build off each outing and get better every time. It was really a big stepping stone for me to come out here and continue to learn how to pitch.”
Brayden Jones (Ole Miss) gave up a run in the sixth and seventh before Jordan Little (East Carolina) allowed the final two runs in the ninth.
But on a night that cooled to 75 degrees by eight o’clock, Bethesda’s offense faltered in crucial moments. The team had just three runs on six hits and wasted a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity in the third when Kamenjasevic got Lane to pop up and Wargo to strike out swinging. The wasted another bases-loaded opportunity in the sixth when Wargo flew out with the bases loaded.
“Time of hitting, two-out hitting today,” Colangelo said of what his team needed to improve.
Mental errors also cost Bethesda Saturday evening. Up one in the seventh, Jefferson dove for a ball off the bat of Koontz that landed several feet ahead of him. Instead of a potential single or maybe a double, the ball rolled to the wall and Koontz made it to third. Koontz then scored the game-tying run when Felix missed a throw to Lane at first with two outs that would have ended the inning. The story of the Big Train in the LCS was full of miscues, both physical and mental.
And in the top of the ninth, it continued. Cobb tried to catch Koontz at third but sailed the ball over Felix’s head, which sent Koontz in for the winning score. Colangelo knew too many of these miscues would cost the Big Train in the end.
“Just the mental mistakes, you know, diving for the ball in the outfield. So just cleaning up the little things and, we’ll be right back where we are.”
Even with sepulchral sounds like “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan and "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion, among other relatively soporific melodies, playing over the PA system during the Aces’ batting practice, Berset and his side prevented the league’s most dominant club from picking up its 10th title and what would have been its sixth straight.
“Stay calm,” Berset said of his team’s mentality heading into the clinching game. “We knew we had to keep putting it on the Big Train because they’re not gonna go away. Sal’s too good of a coach to let that happen. It’s gonna be a dogfight, and it’s a testament to him and all his what he does over there.”
As the Aces celebrated with an ice bath for Berset, center fielder Eddie Hacopian, a Potomac, Maryland, native, received the playoff MVP award after batting .556 with 10 hits.
With 26 of the 34 rostered players for the Big Train entering their sophomore years, this was one of the youngest teams Colangelo has fielded. And while the Hall of Fame manager will take time away from the diamond to see his daughter off to college, the preparations for next season will soon be underway.
“If I’m a betting man,” Colangelo said, “I’d bet we’ll be right back in the championship series again next year, like we’ve been in the last number of years.”
It would take a bold gambler to be on the other side of that bet.
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