The Bethesda Big Train began this season in search of a sixth straight Cal Ripken League Championship. After earning the No. 2 overall seed after the regular season, the Big Train swept the Gaithersburg Giants in the League Championship Series Semifinals. Now, they will play the No. 1 Alexandria Aces for that chance, the second straight year the two teams meet in the finals. The last time these two rivals faced off this season was a doubleheader at Shirley Povich Field on July 21, when the Aces stormed into Bethesda and took both games, which helped them secure the No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage.
The Big Train offense clicked in the semifinals. However, Bethesda will have to get more creative with their lineup in the finals. Some players have left the DMV early or suffered an injury, forcing them to depart, including Peyton Schulze (UC Berkeley), who led the team with 28 RBI and 14 2B this season.
Another huge loss for this team is leadoff man Luke Nowak (ECU). Nowak suffered an injury in warmups in Game 2 of the semifinals against the Giants and unfortunately, will be out for the finals as well. While Nowak’s knack for getting on base is a big loss, Garrett Felix (Nicholls State) was slotted into the lead-off spot against the Giants and was terrific going 3-for-5 with two runs scored. Felix served as the leadoff hitter for much of the early part of the season before Nowak’s arrival after ECU’s College World Series run. The Big Train should feel comfortable with Felix at the top of the lineup considering his knack for getting on base and stealing bases.
Even though the offense has some big holes going into the finals, the Big Train are nothing if not deep at the plate, which has been evident over the last week.
Player to Watch: Sean Lane (Maryland)
Since the postseason began, and the last several games before the postseason, Lane has been a consistent force. He has been hitting cleanup since John Kramer (Ole Miss) went down with an injury and has taken advantage fo the promotion. Lane was 4-for-6 in the series against Gaithersburg and leads Big Train players in postseason batting average (.667). In Game 1 of the series, he hit a towering solo homer to center. It was his second homer in as many games. Over the last four games, including the two postseason games, Lane is 7-for-11 with 2 2B and 2 homers.
Manager Sal Colangelo says that Lane has not been getting fooled on offspeed pitches and breaking balls. In order for the Green and White to win another championship, Lane has to put the ball in play as much as possible.
Key for the Big Train: Run Prevention
The pitching rotation has been an interesting storyline for the Big Train this season. It has either been lights out or unwatchable.
In the series against the Giants, the Big Train utilized Ryan Sanders (St. Mary’s (CA)), who struggled in Game 1, allowing eight runs through three innings, and Nick Del Prado (FAU), who pitched five scoreless innings and struck out eight in the series clincher. It was Sanders’ worst start of the season, so if the Big Train use him again, they’ll need him to perform more like his regular-season self.
In that doubleheader against the Aces on July 21, the pitching really struggled, particularly in Game 2. The Big Train pitchers walked 10 batters. Limiting walks and free bases is critical if the Big Train are going to take down the Aces, especially considering that offense is Alexandria's strength and the players missing from the Big Train lineup.
The Opponent: Breaking Down the Aces
The Alexandria Aces and the Big Train finished the regular season with an identical 26-10 record, but the Aces earned the first seed due to head-to-head results. After dropping its first two games in the season series, Alexandria won its next four to finish with a 4-2 record against Bethesda. They also outscored the Big Train 46-27 overall and twice scored 13 runs against the Big Train.
Not only did the Aces finish the season on a seven-game win streak to lock up the no. 1 overall seed, but they also dominated their opposition en route to that regular-season title. After suffering a 21-9 loss on July 17 to the Cropdusters, the Aces outscored their opponents 64-27 over those final seven games.
The Aces earned a bye into the league semifinals and picked up a hard-fought, 4-2, victory in Game 1 against the Metro SOCO Braves before outclassing the No. 4 seed in a 12-4 blowout in Game 2, setting up a rematch of the 2021 Ripken League Final.
And unlike the Big Train, Alexandria still has most of its squad intact. All nine of the players who featured for the Aces against the Braves in Game 2 made a plate appearance in the 13-7 drubbing of the Big Train the last time the two sides met.
Players to Watch: Offensive Stalwarts
Against the Braves, two players stood out: Brendon Harrity and Cade Sullivan. Both knocked in three runs, Harrity hit two doubles, and Sullivan rocked two home runs. That was a continuation of Sullivan’s regular season performance, where he racked up 32 RBIs and four homers.
Sullivan was one of three Aces with 30 or more RBIs, the other two being Dylan Koontz (35) and Eddie Hacopian (32). In contrast, the Big Train had none. In fact, if Schulze had been on the Aces, he would only have been fourth on the team in RBIs. Another key player to watch is Adam Tellier, who led the Aces in hitting during the season with a .368 average. Limiting the damage from these five will be necessary for the Big Train to win the title.
Key for the Aces: Keep the Offense Rolling, Improve Team Pitching Performance
The Aces failed to score just once this summer — a 7-0 loss to the D.C. Grays in mid-June. On offense, the regular season champs have been dominant; the Aces had eight players with at least 50 at-bats hit above .300. The Big Train, meanwhile, had three batters with averages better than .300.
To put in context how dominant Alexandria’s offense was, here is how the team finished in each of the major offensive statistical categories compared with the next best club — aside from home runs, in which the Aces finished second. The numbers of the second-best team are included after the backslash. Runs (286/246), hits (352/311), doubles (65/64), triples (8/6), RBIs (254/210) and home runs (24/25).
Alexandria’s pitching is one area the Big Train will look to exploit. The Aces had six pitchers reach the 20 innings mark, but only one of them — Matt Delano, who had a spectacular 0.44 ERA through 20.1 innings — had an ERA below 3.80. With the Aces all but guaranteed to score runs, the Big Train will have to do what they can to match them. Here are Alexandria’s top six innings-eaters and their statistics:
The Big Train's ability to tack on runs against these six and the other pitchers on the Aces' staff will be a battle worth watching all series long.
The series kicks off on Friday, July 29 at Frank Mann Field at 6.30 p.m.
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