Using a lethal combination of excellent offense, defense and pitching, the Cardinals completed an outstanding 2011 campaign with an 8-4 win over the Braves in the championship game of the AAA League playoffs on Thursday night at Burchill Field B.
The victory in the finals capped off a terrific spring for the Cardinals in which they captured the AAA Division regular-season title with a 10-1-1 record. They then won three consecutive playoff games in convincing fashion to secure that league crown.
“Our goal all season was to win a championship,” said Cardinals’ head coach Gary Portway. “And the overall focus of the team for this game was excellent. We played 15 games and lost one and tied one. We started off 9-0 before we tied a game. We went 1-1-1 in our last three games, which was good. It got the team to refocus. We rebounded to win our last regular-season game, giving us some momentum going into the playoffs.”
The AAA Division has players nine, 10 and 11 years old. The Cardinals’ squad consisted of Sam McGrath, K.J. Williams, Noah Burke, Colin Beyna, Javik Blake, Mike McNichols, Bobby Portway, Ryan Wheeler, Troy Butler, J.P. Hynes, Blaise Germano and Austin Carroll. They had one 9-year-old, six 10 years old and five 11 year olds.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these kids,” Portway said. “It was a great group that played together as a team all year. This was a smart group of kids that always listened to the instruction of the coaches. Experience was a big factor for us this year.
“We had a well-rounded team with our pitching, hitting and defense. We were balanced in all areas, but our big strength this year was our hitting. In 12 regular-season games, we scored 126 runs and gave up 62. Our run differential this year was tremendous.”
The Cardinals also outscored their opponents by a 40-16 margin in three playoff games.
During the regular season, the Braves placed fifth out of six teams in the division with a 3-6-2 record. But they were a different team in the postseason, winning four of their first five playoff games to get to Thursday’s championship game.
And the Braves certainly worked hard to get to the finals. Following a 14-5 opening-round victory over Pirates, they dropped a 21-11 decision to the Cardinals last Saturday.
“We told the kids they had to forget that game,” said Braves’ head coach Chris O’Keefe.
That loss dropped the Braves into the loser’s bracket, where they proceeded to win three games in four days to reach the championship. The Braves defeated the Cubs on Sunday, 16-11, before knocking off the Rockies 15-5 on Tuesday. They punched their ticket to the finals by beating the Dodgers 6-4 in the loser’s bracket final on Wednesday.
“Before the playoffs we really talked a lot to the kids about not worrying about our record,” O’Keefe said. “We felt we had a group capable of reaching the finals. The level of play of our kids in the playoffs was fantastic. We knocked more teams out than anyone else. The way our pitching was set up, the pivotal game for us was against the Rockies.”
The Braves were made up of Derek Donahue, Ben Vaphiades, Kyle Gauvin, Trevor Pope, Nick Pucino, Kevin Murphy, Matt O’Keefe, Joe Raneri, Brendan Heayden, Jeff Golota, Colin Smith and D.J. Nihill. “We had a really good group,” O’Keefe said.
On Thursday night in the finals, the combination of the terrific pitching of Beyna and Burke along with solid defense and timely hitting propelled the Cardinals to the title.
Beyna went the first two innings and then closed things out in the sixth. In his three innings, he allowed one run and two hits. He struck out four batters, walked one and hit one batter. Burke pitched the third, fourth and fifth innings, allowing three runs and four hits. Of the nine outs he recorded, five came by strikeouts. He also walked one batter.
“We had excellent pitching depth,” Portway said. “Eight of our 12 kids could pitch.”
At the same time, the top of the Brave order gave the Cardinals particular trouble as Donahue and Vaphiades combined to go 4-for-6 with two RBI and two runs scored. Donahue was 2-for-3 with one RBI and one run. Vaphiades was 2-for-3 with an RBI.
The Braves had six hits with Raneri cracking a triple and O’Keefe collecting a single.
“I’m very happy with the way the kids played,” O’Keefe said. “Our entire lineup hit well. The kids did a good job swinging the bats, not waiting and taking too many strikes. But last night and tonight we hit a lot of line drives that were caught. The bounces did not go our way. This is a group that as the season went on improved dramatically at the plate. The kids also improved their fielding quite a bit during the course of the season.”
Even though they allowed eight runs, the Brave pitching corps of Golota, Gauvin, O’Keefe and Murphy surrendered just six hits. “Our strength throughout the playoffs was that we had excellent depth with our pitching,” said O’Keefe.
Lead-off hitter McGrath led the way for the Cardinal offense, going 2-for-3 with two RBI and one run scored. Williams, Portway, Wheeler and Carroll also collected singles.
The Braves got on the board first in the top of the first when Donahue singled, stole second base, moved to third on a single by Valphiades and scored a groundout by Pope.
The Cardinals responded with a run in the bottom of the first when McGrath singled, moved to second and third on a pair of wild pitches and then scored on a passed ball.
The regular-season champions took control of the game with a five-run uprising in the bottom of the second. McGrath had a two-run single during the rally with Wheeler and Williams adding RBI singles. Hynes also brought home a run with a bases loaded walk.
Trailing 6-1, the Braves got back in the game with a pair of runs in the top of the third as Donahue and Vaphiades collected RBI singles to make it 6-3. They drew a little closer in the top of the fifth when Raneri chased home O’Keefe with a triple to make it 6-4.
But the Cardinals added a pair of important insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth. With Hynes and Germano on base, Carroll collected just his second hit of the season, cracking a single to right field that scored both runners and gave the Cardinals an 8-4 advantage. For his efforts, Carroll received the game ball after the victory.
Beyna then closed the door in the top of the sixth and the Cardinals had won their title.
“We hit the ball hard all year,” Portway said. “We out-slugged a lot of teams.”
Also on Thursday night, the Reds defeated the Red Sox, 10-5, to capture the Babe Ruth League championship at the David Mollica Baseball Complex at Norton High.
In the Major Division, the Red Sox punched their ticket to the finals with a 6-5 victory over the White Sox in the loser’s bracket final at Burchill Field A. The Red Sox will battle the A’s for the division crown on Friday at Burchill Field A at 5:45 p.m.
A win by the A’s will give them the title, but a victory by the Red Sox will send the two teams to a winner-take-all contest on Saturday at 9 a.m. at Burchill Field A.
The Mud Cats forced a deciding game in the AA League finals on Thursday at Lions Field, knocking off the Sea Dogs 11-6. That championship contest will be played on Friday night at 5:45 p.m. at Burchill Field B.