FORT MYERS, Fla. – Eight teams from seven states started play in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs at the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship Monday morning, but by the time the championship began in the afternoon, a theme had developed: It was a great day to be a Virginian.
The Virginia Cardinals out of Midlothian in the Richmond-area and the venerable Richmond Braves National faced-off at jetBlue Park in the title game of one of Perfect Game’s most prestigious national championship tournaments, more than 900 miles from their Central Virginia homes.
The No. 8-seeded Cardinals left the park with a rousing and somewhat unexpected 10-2, six inning victory over the No. 1-seeded Braves National, but there was enough Virginia pride in the house to fill all of Old Dominion with baseball joy.
“This really represents Virginia,” the Braves National’s Andre Lipcius said. “We’re obviously the best state in America in our age group in baseball.”
There was no denying it on this sunny and hot mid-October day in Southwest Florida as the two Virginia squads vanquished powerhouse teams from Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina during Monday’s quarterfinal- and semifinal-round play on their way to the championship game.
And it promised to be one of this long-standing tournament’s most intriguing title games until the Braves National (7-1-0) ran out of ammo while the Cardinals (8-0-0) just kept reloading.
Richmond pitchers had thrown five shutouts and allowed only single runs in two other games coming into the championship; six Braves National pitchers had allowed only two runs in 41 innings (0.34 ERA) on 20 hits with 48 strikeouts and 13 walks.
That run total doubled when the Virginia Cardinals pushed across two runs in the top of the first with John Gregory and Vinnie Pasquantino each credited with an RBI although neither run was earned; it was the first time in eight games the Braves National had trailed.
The Cardinals made it 3-0 in the top of the third when a runner scored on a Richmond balk, and after the Braves National’s J.D. Mundy smacked a two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth to cut the margin to one at 3-2, the Cards put it away with a six-run fifth to up their lead to 9-2.
Jacob Long and Cayman Richardson had RBI singles in the frame but other runs were scored on a bases loaded walk; a bases loaded hit-batsmen; a wild pitch and an RBI fielder’s choice groundout. Another fielder’s choice RBI groundout in the top of the sixth made it 10-2 to invoke the run-rule and when the Braves National couldn’t score in the bottom of the inning, the championship belonged to the Cards.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Virginia Cardinals head coach Rich Graham said. “They stayed diligent and competed on every single pitch the whole week long, and that’s what it takes when you’re facing teams like this. The Braves are a nationally recognized, long-standing, historically excellent program and it took every bit of our effort to come out on top today.”
Each team totaled just six hits. Richardson was 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored, and Gregory and Henry Moore each drove in two runs to lead the Cardinals. Mundy finished 2-for-3 with the two RBI and a run scored and Lipcius was 2-for-3 with a run.
Lipcius, a 6-foot, 185-pound, high-follow, uncommitted 2016 shortstop/right-hander from Williamsburg, had one of those career-altering tournaments. He was named the Most Valuable Player after batting 10-for-19 (.526), with a double, triple, home run, three RBI and 11 runs scored; he also threw a complete game shutout in the Braves National’s semifinal victory.
“This has been amazing. We never expected that we would be here,” Lipcius said of the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship experience. “Everyone contributed and it was so fantastic, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. We might seem like the (goofiest) team sometimes but when we come together we play ball.”
The Cardinals hit well as a team (.325) during their run to the organization’s first PG national championship but it was their pitching and defense that delivered the mail. They committed just one error in their eight games – it came in the championship tilt – and 10 pitchers combined to allow nine earned runs on 34 hits in 48 2/3 innings (1.30 ERA), striking out 41.
“The pitching and the defense is the key – it really is,” Graham said. “The boys pitched so well and they played defense so well … and I couldn’t be more proud or more satisfied.”
2016 No. 435-ranked uncommitted right-hander Grey Lyttle from Ashland finished 2-0, allowing no runs on two hits over nine innings while striking out nine and walking two; he was named the Most Valuable Pitcher.
“We came down here with the plan of executing baseball and throwing strikes, and that’s all our coach told us to do; we just came out here and competed,” Lyttle said. “We’ve all known each other since we were 8 years old and we’ve played together so we know each other very well.”
The players on these two teams from Central Virginia know each other well, and have spent their young baseball lives playing with or against one another. The people involved with both programs have the utmost respect for one another and Graham, among many others, wasn’t surprised by an all-Virginia championship game at a PG national championship event.
“It just says a lot for Central Virginia and Virginia as a whole as a baseball hotbed and it really is,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of high-end players come out of area – like Justin Verlander and Sean Marshall and other players like that – but the youth baseball is fantastic; you see it in the colleges, as well.”
He credited a couple of his assistant coaches – John Carpenter and Rob Fultineer, who have sons on the team – with working with these players when they were young and teaching them the fundamentals, even before Graham came on board.
“There are hundreds of guys in Virginia who dedicate so much time and effort to teaching the kids how to play the game the right way,” Graham said. “We’re not the only ones out there; there are a lot of teams out there doing it the right way and that’s what makes us happy to represent Virginia, and that’s why we call ourselves the Virginia Cardinals.”
Steven Carpenter stroked an RBI single in the bottom of the fifth inning to invoke the run-rule and the Cardinals walked-off with an 8-0 win over the No. 7 Charlotte Megastars (6-1-0) in one of two semifinal games played Monday morning at the jetBlue Player Development Complex.
The Cards scored a single run in the bottom of the first and three each in the third and fourth to build a 7-0 lead going into the fifth. John Gregory delivered a two-run single in the third and Vinnie Pasquantino had a two-run double in the fourth and finished with three RBI; Justin Sorokowski was 2-for-2 with two runs scored.
Lyttle threw five strong innings and allowed only one hit with three strikeouts and two walks; 36 of his 54 pitches went for strikes.
“I just wanted to go out and throw strikes,” he said. “I know I have a great defense behind me – I think we only made one error the whole tournament – so I knew I had good people behind me.”
The Braves National reached the title game behind yet another stellar pitching performance supported by one timely, difference-making hit in a 1-0 win over the No. 4 East Cobb Astros 17u (6-1-0) in a semifinal Monday morning.
Evan Lowery drove a single into centerfield that scored Andre Lipcius with the winning run in the bottom of the seventh for the walk-off victory. Lipcius led off the frame with a single after starring from the mound throughout the game. Lowery had doubled earlier in the game.
Lipcius threw a complete game shutout, scattering four hits, striking out seven and walking one. He threw 73 pitches in his seven innings of work, 54 for strikes.
The Astros’ Andrew Grogan, a 2016 right-hander from Cumming, Ga., was especially effective, throwing only 51 pitches – 35 for strikes – in six innings, allowing five hits with no strikeouts and one walk.
In a rarity at this event, the final eight featured only one team from Florida, the Scorpions 2016 Prime. Two of the final eight were from Virginia (Richmond Braves National and Virginia Cardinals) with one each from Georgia (East Cobb Astros 17u), North Carolina (Charlotte Megastars), Illinois (Elite Baseball Training-Chicago 2016), Texas (Texas Stix) and Louisiana (Marucci Elite).
The four quarterfinal games featured tremendous pitching performances, including one from the Virginia Cardinals’ Sorokowski in the Cards 3-0 win over second-seeded Texas Stix (5-1-0). Sorokowski, a Florida State commit ranked No. 329 nationally, threw a complete game shutout, allowing only two hits while striking out 12 and walking no one.
At the end of this day, one team from Virginia stood above another, but only on the scoreboard and only after one game. The memories will last a lifetime.
“One thing that I know having played minor league baseball and having won a couple of rings, is that never goes away; it’s forever,” the Cardinals’ Graham said. “These kids will remember each other 40 years from now, 50 years from now, and they’ll bump into each other downtown and they’ll share some memories, and that’s what it’s all about.
“Baseball is a great game, but it’s the friendships and the camaraderie you develop that matters; that’s what means the most,” he concluded. “This team deserved to win this (championship); they’re a great bunch of kids who love each other and they play hard for each other and they deserve to be national champions; I’m just happy to know them.”
2014 WWBA Underclass World Championship runner-up: Richmond Braves National
2014 WWBA Underclass World Championship MVP: Andre Lipcius, Richmond Braves National
2014 WWBA Underclass World Championship MV-Pitcher: Grey Lyttle, Virginia Cardinals