UTICA — Playing six games in five days proved to be too much for Smith Post baseball team to overcome in the end.
The Rome squad rolled through the first half of the game and even claimed an early lead in the District V championship game against Whitesboro Post on Friday at Murnane Field, but then the floodgates opened as the defending district champs scored 11 late-inning runs to capture their second straight title with an 11-1 win.
The game was called after seven innings because of the 10-run mercy rule.
Smith starting pitcher Ed Zakrzewski had a strong outing going through four innings, giving up just one hit, two walks and two hit batsmen as Smith led 1-0. But pitching three times in four days, two of them starts, caught up to the Rome Catholic graduate in the fifth when he simply ran out of gas as four runs came across the plate in the frame.
Brandon Heitz had two hits and four RBIs to pace the well-rested Whitestown squad that put up six more runs in the sixth. The staff’s pitching ace Mike Engler (8-0) was superb once again on the mound, allowing the one run off four hits and striking out six.
Whitestown finished the tournament at 4-0 and concluded the season going undefeated at 19-0 against District V teams. The squad has also won eight straight District V Tournament games, dating back to last season. Whitestown will next compete in the state championship tournament beginning on Monday at Murnane Field.
"I’m really proud of these guys. We had a target on our back from day one, and they never backed down," said Whitestown head coach Paul Engelhart. "It was easier and harder than last year. Easier because we’ve already done it and we’ve been through it, made it to the championship game and won it. Harder because everyone knows what these kids accomplished, but we went through the season and this week focused.
Even at the beginning of the game we were down a little bit, but we didn’t press. We let the game come to us, and we took advantage of some opportunities," he added.
Whitestown will be the defending champion in next week’s state tournament. Also playing in the state tourney will be Adrean Post, which got an automatic bid as the host team.
Against Smith on Friday, Whitestown pounced on Zakrzewski with two runners on base with one out when Mike Bunal broke through for his team with a line drive to left field to bring in Dylan Gorski from second, and Heitz followed by driving in the go-ahead run off a single to score Adam Pexton.
A throwing error to second base on a pickoff attempt by Zakrzewski on Heitz brought in Bunal to score the third run, and Engler put up the fourth run on a grounder to the shortstop off reliever Steven Eychner to end the frame up 4-1.
After Engler tossed a scoreless top of the sixth, Whitestown got in position to put it away in the bottom of the inning with the bases loaded and two out for Heitz. The No. 3 hitter in the order didn’t pass up the opportunity and put Smith away for good with a towering blast to the right field wall to clear the bases for a commanding 7-1 advantage.
"I was just kind of looking for a fastball inside, a pitch that I could turn on, and I got it and took it back," said Heitz. "We came into it knowing that everyone was coming out to get us, but we played hard every day and came through."
Eychner drove in Smith’s only run in the third inning on a single to score Derek Murphy from third base.
Smith had its opportunities to pad on to its 1-0 lead, but failed to do so when Alex Rudiak got caught stealing home plate during a double steal attempt with Eychner in the third for the final out, and then left runners on first and second in the fourth with one out as Murphy struck out and Rudiak grounded to first base.
Smith head coach Tony Abone Jr. said it is always a difficult task to win the tournament after losing a game with the way the schedule is, which included playing two games on Thursday in order to get to the title round.
"It’s very hard in this tournament to come out of the losers’ bracket and play every day four days in a row and a doubleheader then beat a very good team," he said. "We had them on the ropes a couple times when we had some runners on base, but their maturity and experience takes over."
The Smith Post team bus arrived back in Rome around 1 a.m. Friday after playing Thursday’s twin bill in Utica.
Even if Smith had won Friday’s game, it would have also needed to win a second game Friday night against Whitestown in the double-elimination tourney.
Zakrzewski received the loss after giving up four runs off four hits through 4 1-3 innings.
"Ed was tired, but no player is ever going to admit that they’re tired," said Abone.
"They want to finish what they started. They’re not here to give up, and Matt (Engler) is a very good pitcher. We tore the grass in front of the plate out when we hit I think 15 balls right into the ground. He pitches to contact and doesn’t worry about getting a strikeout."
Smith wrapped up the year with a 16-9 overall record and went 12-3 in District V competition.