BY JOHN THEALL Sports writer
DELIVERING A WIN — RFA junior Jeff Cooke winds up and delivers a pitch to a Central Square batter during a Central New York Counties League game at DeLutis Field on Monday. Cooke hurled his third complete-game shutout of the season as the Black Knights won, 2-0. (Sentinel photo by John Theall)
Rome Free Academy senior outfielder Robbie Waller knew that the pitching on the team has been superb throughout the early going of their season, and it has been up to the Black Knights’ offense to do a better job providing some support for their arms.
The Rome veteran took it upon himself to deliver that spark and help lift the team Monday evening.
Waller went a perfect 3-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI while Jeff Cooke tossed another complete-game shutout as the Black Knights scored a 2-0 victory over Central New York Counties League American Division foe Central Square on a gloomy and misty evening at DeLutis Field.
"At the beginning of the year I was struggling, and I’ve been working a lot with assistant coach Ryan Hickey by just staying longer after practices, and working on it everyday. It’s all coming around now," he said.
Waller, who was amongst the top RBI leaders in all of the CNYCL last season, was slow out of the gate this spring, batting just 2-for-21 with one RBI.
On Monday, he got the Black Knights started with a lead-off single in the second inning and later came around to score off a sharply hit ball back up the middle by Connor Miller that Central Square second baseman Tim Traub bobbled for an error to up the Romans’ ahead, 1-0.
Then, Waller delivered again with an insurance run coming off an RBI single in the sixth to plate pinch-runner Kenny Adams after Cooke had led off the inning with a single and Rome went ahead, 2-0.
"A one-run lead isn’t safe against any team, and it was a big spot at that moment. That definitely gave us some more confidence and definitely gave us that boost that we needed in the end there," Waller said about his RBI back up the middle. "I’m just seeing the ball really well and waiting to see my pitches, and taking what the pitchers are giving me. We have a lot of potential with this group here, and it’s starting to all come together," he added.
The two runs were all that Cooke would need against Central Square, which dropped to 1-4 in the league and 3-7 overall.
Backed by some offense and some quality defensive play behind him, Cooke hurled a two-hit complete-game shutout and struck out eight batters and walked just four batters during his outing.
Cooke has thrown four complete games this season, and three of them have been shutouts for the 2-3 in the league and 5-6 overall Black Knights.
In 34 innings pitched, Cooke has struck out 33 batters and improved to 4-1 on the mound with an ERA of 2.44.
He strained a runner on base in five of the seven inning he pitched and he fanned the final two batters to end the game, the last batter with a fastball low and outside. The pitch that Cooke called his "go-to pitch" on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff on the mound.
"I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t have my best stuff today. I twisted my ankle a little while ago, and that was affecting me a little bit. My curveball wasn’t snapping like it normally does, so I was going with the outside fastball down and away to get a lot of their batters out," he said.
With not his best movement, Cooke let his defense do the work behind him. He induced eight pop outs and four ground outs, and even picked off a runner on first base.
"I just tried to get my defense involved, if I’m not getting strikeouts like I want to, I’m just forcing ground balls and getting pop ups to have the defense get the outs for me," Cooke added.
Joey Battaglia went six innings and allowed two runs off six hits and one walk. He struck out four batters and hit one in the loss on the mound.
Battaglia had one of the Redhawks’ two hits and also had a stolen base. AJ Cardone had a two out humpback single in the fourth as the other hit for the guests.
RFA had a chance to break open the game in the fourth as Waller had a one out single, followed by Josh Mazzaferro getting hit by a pitch to put runners on second and first with one out. Battaglia then got the next two batters to pop out.
Rome stranded six runners through six innings.
The RFA offense, which has averaged 3.75 runs over their last five games, but nine runs came during a five-run first inning last week against Camden during the STOP DWI Classic in Utica.
It’s an issue that longtime head coach Mike Davis is not calling a major concern with this talented bunch.
"Our pitching has been here pretty much all year, and our offense is starting to get it going. We work real hard on it, but we have to be able to execute come game time," Davis said. "We work on drills in practice about getting behind in the pitch count, and work on laying off on bad pitches. It just seems like it’s up and down with this lineup.
"It’s game to game with who is going to get it done for us, where we want the whole lineup to click for us in one of these games," he added.
The Black Knights go back on the road tonight against Auburn for a CNYCL American Division game starting at 5 o’clock, and then travel to Baldwinsville on Thursday at 5 before returning home next Monday to face Proctor High of Utica.