It took two games, but Smith Post won the American Legion baseball District V championship Tuesday night at DeLutis Field.
The Rome team went into the series against Whitestown Post needing one win to secure a trip to this weekend’s state tournament at Murnane Field in Utica. They’d knocked off Whitestown, the top seed in the Navy Division, 7-6 Saturday to earn their way to the finals.
But they’d need to beat Whitestown once more, no easy task against a team that had gone 18-0 in District V during the regular season. Smith was 13-5 in the regular season in the Navy.
Whitestown won the coin toss in the first game to be the home team, but it was Smith that struck first.
Riley Brawdy led off with a walk, then advanced all the way to third on an errant pickoff attempt by starting pitcher Doug Rando. With one out and Ryan Marrello at the plate,
Brawdy broke for home as Marrello hit one back at Rando, who grabbed it as his momentum pulled him toward first base. Brawdy slid headfirst and got under the tag on the throw home to make it 1-0 for the Rome team. It was their only run of the contest.
Rando would end up with a complete game win in game one, limiting the Rome bats to three hits. Whitestown tied the game in the bottom of the fourth when Joe Panuccio doubled to deep left off Justin Swavely to score Dominick Fasolo. Bryce Gnatek flicked a single into right center to score Panuccio to make it 2-1. The run would prove to be the game-winner. Whitestown added two more in the sixth to seal the win. Nate DePerno hit a sacrifice fly that scored Panuccio before Joe Ruggiero singled through the left side to score pinch runner Josh Strzepek.
After Smith failed to score in the top of the seventh, the teams huddled up and prepared for a winner-take-all final game after a 45-minute break.
Swavely had gone five innings in the loss, allowing two runs on three hits and three walks. He struck out seven. Brawdy pitched the sixth, allowing two runs on a hit and a walk.
Game two started similarly, with Whitestown again winning the coin toss to be the home team and Smith pushing across a first inning run.
This time it was Damon Campanaro scoring on a single by Logan DeLutis after he’d singled and Marrello walked to move him to second. The single came on the first pitch off starter
Strzepek after a scary moment. DePerno raced after a foul ball from his catcher position but hit the fence behind home plate at full speed. When he did get back to his feet he was woozy and was taken out of the game.
“It was huge,” said DeLutis of getting the early lead after the first loss. “I think we lost some energy after the second inning” of the first game, he said after the win.
Whitestown tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the third when Joe Crossley singled inside third base to score Gnatek.
Both teams nearly scored in the fifth inning but the defenses shut it down.
First it was Ruggiero who threw a dart from centerfield to gun down pinch runner Cole Donnelly at home on a single by Preston Mecca with two outs. In the bottom half, Smith intentionally walked Fasolo to load the bases with one out then DeLutis induced a double play ground ball to end the threat.
The Smith offense finally broke through in the sixth.
Aaron Simons and Ben Minicozzi each walked to start the inning. Whitestown went to David Antone to pitch. Kyle Williamson put down a sacrifice bunt then Antone walked Brawdy and hit Campanaro to force in a run and put Smith up 2-1. A sacrifice fly by Marrello made it 3-1. With two outs, Ethan Brown hit a ground ball up the middle. Panuccio at shortstop grabbed it and threw to first but Rando, the first baseman, could not handle the throw and failed to control the ball as Brown hit the bag and sent him sprawling. Brawdy scored on the play to make it 4-1. DeLutis then singled through the right side to score Campanaro and Brown, who had both moved up on a wild pitch.
“The approach is to swing at strikes. It’s always get on base,” said Marrello after the win of the team’s game plan. Marrello had a hit, a walk and a sacrifice fly with two RBIs in the doubleheader.
Smith took a 6-1 lead to the bottom of the sixth, and needed six outs to advance to the state tournament. DeLutis got two of them before Simons came in for the save.
Antone singled to open the inning, followed by a single by Panuccio. A one-out bloop single by Collin McAndrew loaded the bases. Then with two outs, Ruggiero laced a two-run single to centerfield to cut the lead to 6-3. In came Simons, who got Fasolo to pop out to first base to end the threat.
Simons would pitch a perfect seventh to complete the win, striking out two including the final batter.
The game plan was to get DeLutis deep into the game and then hopefully be able to hand a lead off to Simons, said second year head coach Ryan Hickey after the games. “Once it’s Aaron’s ball it’s his game the rest of the way.” It worked out just like that.
But it wasn’t easy.
Hickey said the team knew that if they “played our game, we showed we can hang with them,” as evidenced by the win earlier in the tournament and in competing in regular season contests. So when the team had its back against the wall for game two, he said, this “older group” that includes nine recent high school graduates had to pull it together. After allowing the tying run in the third, “we got down a little bit,” Hickey said. “But if we don’t bring it, that’s it,” the season would be over.
The team took a lead but gave back a chunk of it almost immediately, and Hickey urged them: “Keep believing in the team. Keep believing in yourself.”
Now Smith heads to the state tournament and will play the District VII champion at 5 p.m. Saturday. It will be Smith’s first trip there since 2014.
To find success there, Hickey said the recipe is simple.
“It’s been our starting pitching and defense. Nothing should change.”