It’s been more than 10 months that the Smith Post American Legion Baseball team has been stewing over the way that longtime arch rival Utica Post knocked them out of last year’s District V tournament, ending their season.
Payback, at least for now, has been served.
Three-time state champion Smith Post opened its season on Monday night with a 3-2 victory at Rome Free Academy Stadium, scoring the go-ahead and eventual game-winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning on a passed ball on a third strike.
Ed Zakrzewski gutted through 6 2/3 innings of work in his first start on a mound in nearly three months as the Romans grabbed the win on a sun-soaked evening.
Jeff Cooke started the sixth inning off with a lead-off single, Andrew DeBlasiis worked a nine-pitch at-bat before he tattooed a 2-2 pitch to deep left-center field that almost cleared the fence for a home run, but instead hit the base of the wall, pushing Cooke to third with one out.
Utica Post starter Tom DeBernardis retired Josh Mazzaferro with a called third strike before Brian Chevier walked to load the bases, and then Alex Rudiak swung at a sweeping curveball for an apparent third strike. But the ball hit homeplate and bounced over catcher Mike Obernesser’s head and to the backstop, allowing an alert Cooke to score the go-ahead run as Rudiak beat out the play at first base.
What’s eerie is that was the same series of events that cost Smith Post a shot at Whitestown Post in last year’s District V title game, when Utica scored on a passed ball on a third strike, ending Smith’s season in a crushing 8-7 defeat.
"‘Rudi’ said after the game, we called that play," said longtime Smith Post head coach Tony Abone Jr. with a smile.
"He (DeBernardis) threw too good of a curveball, and they didn’t have a chance to block it. It hit the plate and went over. We’re very fortunate to come out of here with a win, because it could have gone either way. These games are always close with these two teams," he added.
Retribution? Well, just for the night.
"It’s good to get a little revenge against them, but we’re more concerned with getting the win," said Andrew DeBlasiis, who said he remembered that game like it was yesterday. "We knew that we had to set the tone and come out swinging. We had some good at-bats, we fought hard, and got the win."
It was DeBlasiis’ key at-bat that extended the inning and helped wear down DeBernardis with a nine-pitch at-bat.
"I wasn’t going to let him put me down. I knew I had to have a good at-bat, fouled some pitches off, and just hung in there. Once I got that good pitch, I took it. On a windy day I think that would have been out, but I got a good piece of it," he said.
Rudiak also contributed with an RBI double and scored a run, as Steve Eychner had an RBI single, Mazzaferro scored a run, and Chevier doubled and scored a run.
Zakrzewski snapped his wrist this past March during his freshmen season at Mohawk Valley Community College during a pitching practice drill. He needed to have a small plate inserted into his non-throwing wrist, and had not thrown live action baseball until Monday night.
The Smith Post veteran hurled 6 2/3 innings and gave up five hits, four walks and two runs while striking out two batters.
He said he felt great after the game, and was just happy to be back out on the mound.
"I was over hyped when I first went out there for the first time in three months, and then I started to settle down. The curveball was moving a little bit and then I started hitting my spots. I feel really good after this game. It’s a big win to start the season off 1-0 instead of 0-1, so this is just what we needed," he said.
"I have to give most of the credit to the team because I would give up a run, and then they would go right back out there for me and try and get it back. They played really good defense behind me, and they gave me everything that they had. That’s a team effort right there."
Abone said it was an easy decision to allow Zakrzewski to get the start on opening night.
"He has the experience, and we liked what we had seen from him during the sessions that he threw. He’s probably the most rested out of anybody on our staff because he was hurt. We just wanted to see how he’d respond, and this was probably our strongest defensive alignment that we have seen so far," Abone said.
"He’s been chomping at the bit to get out here, and he battled out there for us. He didn’t have the good fastball today like he’s had in practice, so we went predominately with a lot of off speed pitches, but he threw great. He’s around the plate, he’s a grinder, and we made some plays behind them," he added.
Abone said that he thinks that he has "seven or eight" solid pitchers on his staff and feels comfortable with all their abilities, and added that there isn’t an ace of the staff, but a number of kids who can come in and get the job done when called upon.
The left-handed DeBernardis struck out four, walked three and allowed seven hits and three runs over six innings of work, while No. 9 hitter Lawrence Elliott crushed a solo homer to left-center field in the fourth inning for Utica.
Nick Maldonado’s sacrifice flyout to centerfield in the fifth tied that game at 2-2, but Rome responded in the next inning.
Utica dropped to 2-1 overall after playing in their first road game this season.
At the start of the game, Mayor Joseph R. Fusco Jr. threw out the first pitch right after the color guard carried out the American flag for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
Smith Post will return home on Thursday against Helmuth-Ingalls Post at RFA Stadium starting at 6 o’clock.