Survive and advance was the story of the day when the Rome Free Academy baseball team handed arch rival Proctor High of Utica a 1-0 loss on Tuesday, scoring the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The two starting pitchers, Utica’s John Napoli and Rome’s Jeff Cooke, matched each other with dueling complete-game two-hitters, and it appeared that the team to flinch first would come up short handed.
Luckily for Rome, it was Proctor.
RFA’s No. 9 hitter, senior Tom Amuso, was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded on a 1-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to bring in Dylan Thomas for the game-winning run, while Cooke finished with his sixth complete-game of the season in the Section III Class AA first-round playoff game at DeLutis Field.
The seventh-seeded Black Knights, who improved to 12-9 overall and won their fourth straight, will take to the road to play defending Class AA champion and second-seeded Liverpool (14-6) on Thursday in the quarterfinals at 4:30 p.m.
One of the smallest kids on the team, Amuso, provided the biggest lift for the Black Knights.
Thomas started the seventh inning off by getting hit by a fatiguing Napoli, who was brilliant for the first six innings, Josh Mazzaferro sacrifice bunted him over to second, before Ryan Reilley was intentionally walked. Conner Miller then beat out an infield hit to short stop Conner Roth, who fielded the ball and double-clutched when he tried to get an advancing Reilley, but saw there was no force play at the bag because Reilley had been in motion well before Napoli’s delivery, and Roth made a last-second low throw to first base, but Miller had been called safe on the play to load the bases.
Spencer Kahler then struck out swinging on a low fastball, before Amuso worked a 1-2 count and then was hit in the shoulder to bring in the game-winning run.
"I never expected something like that. I’m trying to drive the ball in that spot because we needed a hit, and he got me down in the count, but I was trying to crowd the plate and make him make the pitches. I didn’t think I’d get hit, but anything can happen at that spot that can win the game," Amuso said.
"This was a battle," said longtime RFA coach Mike Davis.
"Amuso has delivered all year for us. He’s had some key hits, he’s a head’s up player. He’s not a power hitter, but he knows the game, and he got the job done for us. You need people like him on your team because those are the types of players that help you win games. A win is a win, and it doesn’t matter how you win at this stage. We matched them play for play, and it was one of those games where it comes down to who makes the last mistake," Davis added.
Rome had beaten Proctor, 2-1, on a bases-loaded walk earlier this season.
Thomas scored both those runs in that game and has in fact been a thorn in Proctor’s side throughout the whole school year. He also kicked the game-winning field goal in Rome’s 24-21 football win over the Raiders last fall. Thomas said he was on third base trying to distract Napoli, and also yell words of encouragement to Amuso.
"I think their pitcher was starting to get tired and just a little wild, so I was on third trying to get into the pitcher’s head, trying to get him to mess up when I’m on third. I don’t know if it worked or not, but I came around for the game winning run," said Thomas with a smile afterwards.
Napoli, who entered with a 4.63 ERA, limited Rome to two hits, one intentional walk, and three hits batsmen, including two in the final inning. He struck out six, and RFA stranded three base runners.
The ending was unbelievable, but it was Cooke that was certainly putting on the show early on.
Cooke has won his last five starts — all coming as complete game victories — and he has pitched six complete games for wins this season for a 6-1 record.
His complete-game two-hit shutout against Proctor could have been his best start on the biggest stage yet this season. He finished with two walks and eight strikeouts. Proctor stranded five runners, and were 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.
The only inning when 10th-seeded Proctor put something together against Cooke was in the sixth with runners on first and second with two outs, but Cooke struck out Elliott Lawrence with a fastball on an 0-2 pitch and the Rome crowd erupted.
"I was trying to stay relaxed more, and just tried to throw strikes. I wasn’t tense at all. This was one of the biggest games of the year, against our rivals, especially in sectionals, it can’t get any bigger. My curveball was working really well, and my team really made all the plays behind me," Cooke said.
Mike Saporito led off the seventh inning with a slow rolling grounder to short stop and was called out at first base on a bang-bang play at first, and longtime Proctor head coach Dave Guido was ruled to stay in the dugout for an restriction call after arguing with the call.
The next batter, Nick Bruzzese, walks on four pitches, and Guido came out and brings in Nick Wilsey as a pinch runner, and the umpires ejected Guido for leaving the dugout after he was warned of his restriction, and the three argued back-and-forth out on the field.
RFA has not won a Section III baseball title since capturing back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003.