VINELAND, N.J. – Rain forced three first-round playoff games at the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier to be moved from Sunday (Aug. 31) night to Monday (Sept. 1) morning, which in the minds of players, coaches, fans and tournament officials spelled only one thing: L-O-N-G … D-A-Y.
And it was a long day – about 13 hours from start to finish – but by the time play wrapped up at the East Vineland Senior League complex, Baseball U Tucci Lumber 17u had something to show for the overtime it put in and a new word to describe itself: C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N.
Baseball U Tucci Lumber 17u, a team assembled with players from Baseball U New Jersey, Baseball U Pennsylvania and Baseball U Connecticut, rattled off four playoff wins on Labor Day – including a 5-4 victory over 9ers Baseball Club-17u Prime out of Toms River, N.J., in the late night title game – and won the championship at the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier.
“It took 24 players to play a part in the (championship) run,” Baseball U National Director and Tucci Lumber 17u head coach John Wells told Perfect Game in an e-mail. “Fresh legs were a huge part of being able to rest players to keep them fresh.”
It is the sixth time Baseball U – an organization headquartered in Howell, N.J. and in its ninth season of operation – won the Northeast Qualifier championship. The title awards the team an automatic paid invitation to the prestigious PG WWBA World Championship Oct. 23-27 in Jupiter, Fla.
“Jupiter is always the highlight of our season,” Wells wrote in the e-mail. “We can’t wait to get back there and represent the Northeast once again.”
The PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier drew 58 teams to South Jersey and Baseball U Tucci Lumber 17u (6-0-1) and 9ers Baseball Club-17u Prime (6-1-0) were the only unbeatens left standing by the time the championship game finally started at about 8:30 Monday night.
The game was tied at two until the fifth inning when Baseball U broke out with three runs and took a 5-2 lead into the seventh. Robbie Peto, an unranked 2016 right-hander from Monroe Township, N.J., and a North Carolina commit, was brought in to pitch the final frame for the U, and after striking out the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the 9ers lineup, he walked three straight to load the bases.
The 9ers managed to push across a pair of runs to move within 5-4 and had the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on first. It brought back memories of a semifinal game at the 2013 Northeast Qualifier between the two teams that saw the 9ers rally from a 7-2 deficit to pull out the win.
This time, however, Peto buckled down and struck out the final batter he faced to preserve the victory.
The U reached the championship game by beating the Long Island Prospects Black (Eastport, N.Y.), 8-0, in the playoffs’ first round; the Bronx Bombers 17u (The Bronx, N.Y.) in the second round, and the Tri-State Arsenal Rizzo (Voorhees, N.J.) in the semifinals.
Throughout the tournament – Baseball U Tucci Lumber 17u’s only blemish was a 2-2 pool-play tie with Morningside Baseball which dropped them from the playoff’s No. 1 seed to No. 10 – Wells got terrific pitching performances from 2015 right-handers James Kelly (Oceanport, N.J., ranked top-600, Monmouth commit), Zach Altieri (Petersburg, N.J., top-550, uncommitted) and Justin Lasko (Stratford, Conn., top-600, UMass).
2015 left-hander Andrew Nardi (Morganville, N.J., top-600, Radford); 2016 righty Max Kranick (Jessup, Pa., No. 36, Virginia) and 2017 righty Cole Stetzar (Scranton, Pa., unranked, uncommitted) also contributed.
Timely hits were provided along the way from 2015 third baseman Kyle Horton (Monroe, Conn., unranked, Quinnipac) and 2015 shortstop Jon Meola (Toms River, N.J., No. 325, Virginia). Baseball U Tucci Lumber 17u came into the tournament boasting a roster with 14 college commitments.
Monday – Labor Day – marked the start of a dead period in recruiting for NCAA schools which meant no college coaches were in attendance on that final, marathon day. The college coaches – along with MLB scouts – turned out in large numbers the first three days of the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier but they were not allowed to attend on Monday.
Wells looked upon the situation as a very positive development, calling it a “great thing.”
“For the first time this summer the players did not have to worry about performing for anyone other than themselves and for their team,” Wells wrote. “Nobody was taking swings in the on-deck circle (and) looking over their shoulder to see what colleges were watching them. They played for the love of the game and the ‘U’ they wore on their uniform.”
About seven weeks from now, those same players will be proudly wearing that uniform in Jupiter, Fla.