Big first inning fuels Smith to Legion baseball title

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Smith Post scored eight runs in the bottom of the first inning in Wednesday’s District V American Legion baseball championship game against Whitestown at DeLutis Field in Rome, then weathered a five-run second inning to win 8-5.

The two teams met in the finals in 2019 on the same field. That night Whitestown won 2-1 in the first game but needed to win again because Smith was undefeated headed into the matchup while Whitestown had one loss. Smith won game two 6-3 to take the title in manager Ryan Hickey’s second year leading the team.

On Wednesday, Smith’s offense came out on fire. Riley Brawdy led off with a double and Marco Macri doubled on the first pitch he saw to drive him in and make it 1-0 against Whitestown starter Ryan Cardone. Derek Holmes singled with one out then Damon Campanaro got on via fielder’s choice, but the throw to second to get Holmes went wide and he was safe while Marci scored the second run. Mike Flint singled to load the bases then Evan DeLutis got with another fielder’s choice.

Kyle Williamson’s single hit an umpire, and Campanaro scored to make it 3-0. With the bases loaded, Dillan Melchiore walked to force in Flint and Brawdy then walked to force in DeLutis for a 5-0 lead. Macri then ripped his second hit of the inning, a two-run single that scored Williamson and Melchiore and lead 7-0. Jake Premo’s RBI single to score Brawdy was Cardone’s last batter. Kody Czternastek came in to pitch and got the final out. Whitestown trailed 8-0 after an inning.

Macri noted that he’d struggled offensively early in the tournament but he figured it out when it was most important. “The beginning of the tournament wasn’t so hot but I knew these were the bigger games.” The Smith offense, which faced Cardone Thursday in a 4-3 loss in eight innings, had a plan this time. “We just came in here with a positive mindset.” When batters saw Cardone’s offspeed pitches weren’t working, they got in “a fastball mindset.”

“I was amazed,” said Hickey of the scoring outburst, “to play at that level at that moment against that pitcher.” He said that the team responded well after facing Cardone last week. “Each time they faced him they felt more confident.”

Marci went back out to the mound with a big lead but lost the strike zone, walking Ty Kane and Noah Collea to open the inning. After Max Pawlowski hit into a fielder’s choice that forced out Collea, Czternastek hit into a fielder’s choice as well but an errant throw to second allowed Pawlowski to arrive safely while Kane scored to make it 8-1. Dominic Bullis walked to load the bases then Noah Scranton popped a two-run double to score Pawlowski and Czternastek and make it 8-3. A sacrifice fly by Caleb Miller scored Bullis and an RBI single by Cardone scored Scranton to make it 8-5.

Hickey then made a pitching change, bringing in Holmes. He got the final out of the inning to preserve a three-run lead. “You just can’t wait to see if he can work his way out of it,” Hickey said of the decision. He said Holmes was “in a lot of ways, the MVP. Quieted it down, settled us down and gave us a chance.”

Whitestown had a promising start in the fourth when Bullis was hit by a pitch to lead off but when Scranton flew out to right fielder Eli Marrero, Bullis slipped while trying to get back to first and Marrero threw him out at first. In the sixth, Whitestown got the first two batters on but Smith went to Campanaro, the closer, who retired three in a row to keep it an 8-5 lead.

“It feels amazing,” Macri said after the win. “I’m glad we got to do it. States is calling us.”

For Holmes, it’s been a wild ride these past few years. He was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2018. Now in remission, he was part of the Camden baseball team’s Section III B-1 championship as a junior in June. Now he’s a part of the District V championship team, and though it’s mostly Rome Free Academy players on the roster, Holmes and Melchiore both got high school and American Legion titles with Camden and Smith, respectively.

“It’s been a great year. I can’t really believe it,” said Holmes, who earned the win in relief. “It’s a great team over here. Great kids. Love playing with them.” He said once he got on the mound he trusted his defense. “It took all the pressure off my shoulders.”

Hickey guided the team to an unofficial league title last year when there was no official American Legion season due to COVID-19. But when teams organized themselves, the Rome group had the best record after all the games were played. “It’s official,” he said of his second District V title at the helm. “Feels awful good.” He said the biggest factor is “team. This is the true essence of team. It seems like someone different is getting it done for us each game.”

Now it’s on to the state tournament, where Smith Post plays Rayson Miller of District VII at 10 a.m. Saturday in Saugerties. The two teams played in the 2019 state tournament as well. “I’m confident,” said Holmes. “We’re going to go down there and win.”

For Hickey, “I don’t think there’s any changes.” He has spent all season preaching good pitching and defense with timely hitting, and he didn’t change his tune after earning a state bid.

Marci went 1 2/3 innings for Smith, allowing five earned runs on three hits and three walks. He got a no decision. Holmes went 3 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and a walk. Campanaro earned the save with two scoreless innings, allowing only a walk.

Cardone allowed eight earned runs in 2/3 of an inning on seven hits and two walks. Czternastek went the final 5 1/3 innings, allowing two hits with three strike outs.

Smith improved to 14-6, while Whitestown finished the season at 15-3.

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