Kutztown, Pa. - It was as if they had nine lives. In the do-or-die series against Peekskill, after the brutal loss at St. John’s, back in early July or even following their sixth consecutive loss to start the season, the Hampton Whalers were always toiling with playoff elimination, and they managed to fend it off every time. “We struggled early, but we kept the same mentality of working hard and playing hard,” Vega said. “These kids bought into it. They could have easily hung it up, but we kept pushing them, and they kept playing hard. It was great to see kids grow up in front of your eyes in the last month. I told those guys I was really proud of them. They never gave up, and they played hard every single day.”
By the time the postseason came around and the Whalers qualified as the Kaiser Division’s No. 2 seed, the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League’s latest addition looked less like a rookie squad than a team nobody wanted to see in the opposing dugout.
The question remained: is the league’s darling a team of destiny or were the Kaiser Division champs due for a clunker?
That answer came in the ACBL championship game, where the Whalers met host Kutztown, which won the Wolff Division, at Breidegam Park. The Whalers’ two-run lead evaporated in the early going, and courtesy of opportunistic production and extra opportunities by way of fielding mishaps, the Rockies ran off eight unanswered runs to claim their third straight league crown with an 8-2 triumph on Saturday night.
The defeat dropped the Whalers back to the .500 mark at 22-22.
“We know we didn't play well, but it’s hard to be negative about the situation when you think that three weeks ago, we might not have even been in this situation,” Whalers Manager Julio Vega said. “It was a good run. We as a coaching staff understand that you have to play really well in one game to win, and we didn’t do that.”
The Whalers had won five straight and nine of their last 10. Three of those wins – one against Peekskill and two versus Metro N.Y. – allowed them to reach the title bout. A berth in the season’s final game required nothing less than magnificent baseball for all of July and early August.
It seemed that the momentum from Tuesday’s division championship win carried over to the title game when the Whalers came out swinging some heavy lumber against Kutztown. The first three batters – Karl Derbacher, Alan Parks and Chris Walker – singled in succession to break into the scoring column, and when Mark Houck grounded out to bring Parks home, the Whalers’ lead was 2-0 before starting pitcher Andrew Guarrasi took the mound.
After that, though, the visitors’ offense fizzled. Aside from the fifth inning, when Derbacher and Parks again reached with nobody out, they hardly threatened against Rockies starter Casey Lawrence.
“We came out pretty energized and scored two runs early, but then we kind of sat back and waited for something bad to happen,” Vega said.
Parks finished the night with three hits, while Derbacher continued his second-half surge with a pair of singles. The rest of the Whaler order had just two hits against the Rockie staff, including Lawrence, who struck out eight over his six innings. Lawrence, a junior at Albright, entered the game with the ACBL’s sixth-best earned run average in the league at 2.11, a dash behind fifth-place Guarrasi (1.70).
“He struggled hitting spots in the beginning and we got to him, but after that, he pitched great,” Vega said of Lawrence.
Guarrasi left the game on the hook and ended up absorbing his first loss since July 12. The New York Tech junior surrendered 10 hits and four runs over his five innings, and the Whalers were still within striking distance late until Kutztown struck with four runs in the eighth. Chris Sedon, a junior at Lackawanna, the Rockies’ leading hitter in the regular season, looked the part when he belted a two-run homer off reliever Matt Smith, capping the outburst. Earlier in the frame, Dean Laganowsky reached on the Whalers’ third error of the game and scored on Kevin Miller’s third base hit, and Miller later came around for the second of Kutztown’s four runs.
The Rockies scored single runs in the first, second and third innings to erase the early 2-0 deficit in a flash. Of those three runs, two were scored by runners who reached on infield errors, which the Whalers did a fine job avoiding from day one this summer. Vega couldn’t say enough about Kutztown, which proved its merit by knocking off favored Lehigh Valley in the Wolff Division championship series by winning twice on the Catz’ field. However, he knows his side’s had better nights in all three aspects of the game.
“That was a good team,” said Vega, describing Kutztown, which banged out 15 hits. “They made the plays today and we didn't. That’s what it came down to. They got the lead and made every play; we had the lead and we didn't. They were better than us today. I’d like to see our guys come out and play better, but we won't get that chance.”
“We had our shots early but we didn’t capitalize,” he added. “I’m very proud of our guys. It’s too bad it ended that way, but there’s only one team that wins it at the end.”
Kutztown, Pa. - It was as if they had nine lives. In the do-or-die series against Peekskill, after the brutal loss at St. John’s, back in early July or even following their sixth consecutive loss to start the season, the Hampton Whalers were always toiling with playoff elimination, and they managed to fend it off every time.
“We struggled early, but we kept the same mentality of working hard and playing hard,” Vega said. “These kids bought into it. They could have easily hung it up, but we kept pushing them, and they kept playing hard. It was great to see kids grow up in front of your eyes in the last month. I told those guys I was really proud of them. They never gave up, and they played hard every single day.”