June 11’s NYC Middle School Baseball League title game pitted newcomers I.S. 318 from Williamsburg against those scrappy standouts from the Bronx, the J.H.S. 145 Tigers. To get there, the Tigers had to successfully fight their way through two consecutive come-from-behind victories, down to their last out on both occasions, while the 318 Conquistadors served notice to all by topping the Queens champion, I.S. 61 out of Corona, a team that had not lost a single game in the last two years of competition. By the time they made it to Roosevelt Island’s Firefighter Field on Saturday, the hard-hitting Conquistadors had all the momentum in the world.
But when center fielder Andrew Hernandez had to be rushed to the hospital after an outfield collision in the top of the fifth – one of those no-man’s-land fly balls that make the game of baseball such a challenge – it seemed as if the tide was about to turn against the Conquistadors. After all, Tigers pitchers Jesus Zapata and Pablo Brito had done a nice job silencing their bats, preserving a 1-1 tie over four innings. Zapata, in fact, was the one who had hit the ball in question, standing on second base as the go-ahead run in an excruciatingly close game, and was poised to help finish what he’d started.
As paramedics tended to Hernandez, the Conquistadors regrouped underneath a tree behind third base, brushing away tears and summoning up their resolve. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t want to play anymore,” said head coach Thanasi Iliopoulos afterwards. “I asked them, I said, ‘Do you want to continue on?’ And they answered as a team, they said, ‘Let’s do this for Andrew.’”
It was decided that what was needed immediately was team captain Daniel Montanez on the hill, not to mention his indomitable heart and 0.00 ERA. Montanez, who’d been injured himself on a bang-bang play at third earlier in the game, had used the injury timeout to stretch and warm-up, and was allowed to re-enter the game via the injury rule. “I knew I couldn’t let my team down.”
Montanez quickly worked a two-strike count on the first batter he faced, when suddenly Zapata tried to force the issue, racing from second in an attempted steal of third. Conquistadors catcher Giovanni “Gio” Quinones, however, made a picture-perfect throw, nailing Zapata and erasing the threat. Montanez then got that third strike he was looking for, and suddenly there were two outs. A ground-out to shortstop sent the Conquistadors to the plate once again, the score still deadlocked at 1-1.
But the Tigers weren’t going quietly either. Reliever Pablo Brito struck out the first batter in the bottom of the fifth. He even struck out the second batter, Edison Rivas, but the dropped third strike proved costly, as an errant throw allowed Rivas to make it all the way to third. After hitting leadoff hitter Rayner Guzman, Brito then got Ivan Davila looking for what should have been his third strikeout of the inning.
With the heavy-hitting Montanez at the plate, Tigers head coach John Mehling called time and headed for the mound to calm Brito down. The home plate umpire, however, argued that he’d never granted the time out, and called a balk on Brito when he turned to face his head coach. A controversial decision, to say the least, as it allowed Rivas to score, making it 2-1. Still, it might not have mattered at all, because after Montanez was intentionally walked, Quinones then singled in another run, scoring Guzman, and making it 3-1. Brito struck out Brandon Sinche to end the inning – four strikeouts in one inning! – but the damage was done.
With the lead now, a resolute Montanez took the ball again and closed the Tigers out in dramatic fashion, throwing seven strikes in a row en route to an impressively economical sixth, preserving the win, as well as his season-long 0.00 ERA. Finally, it was over.
Tigers head coach Mehling, despite the loss, couldn’t have been prouder of his team, who had two come-from-behind victories to earn a shot at the title. “These guys, they have so much fight in them,” he said. “I’ve tried to teach them the way I was taught, maybe they call it ‘old school’ or whatever, but I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.”
“It just shows you, you can’t predict kids,” said Iliopoulos, the Conquistadors head coach, visibly emotional after his team’s performance. “You can’t always know what they have inside. They show their heart, their fight – they just amaze you sometimes.”
As Commissioner Rob Schliessman commenced the post-game ceremony, presenting Iliopoulos and his team with the city trophy, and praising the Conquistadors for demonstrating “what baseball is all about,” a cell phone rang in the crowd. It was Andrew Hernandez calling from the hospital - he wanted to know who won.
The NYC Middle School Baseball League was started in Manhattan with just four teams and very little equipment. Thanks to the generosity of leading realtors The Pinnacle Group and its CEO Joel Weiner, the league currently accommodates 55 teams throughout the city, providing opportunities for more than 1000 players. For more information, please visit www.MSBLNYC.com.