[MAW] 2019 Opening Day Tournament Preview
OFF TO THE RACES
It is a cliché, but the Mid Atlantic season is a marathon, not a sprint.
The season begins in April with the Opening Day tournament and ends five months later with September’s Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament. In between are five other tournaments, all of which will shape the 2019 season in ways both foreseen and unexpected. The last two years are proof of that. The summer is long (thank god for that) and what happens in April ultimately has little bearing on what is going to happen in September. During the course of the summer, players will perform (some over, some under expectations), teams and players will debut, and games will play out in ways that we cannot even begin to predict here in April. The finish line is far away and a lot can happen between there and the starting blocks.
There is nonetheless a specialness and significance to the opening of the season that should not be understated. The Opening Day tournament won’t tell us what will happen at the Mid Atlantic Championship tournament or other tournaments throughout the summer, but it does provide the first concrete glimpse of what may happen. After a long wiffle-less winter – with only February’s Winter Classic breaking up the slumber – that’s huge. Winning any tournament is a significant achievement and winning the first of a new season is extra special simply because it is the first. For a month at least, one team will stand peerless atop the standings without any question or debate. That’s pretty cool.
For those that want to read something tangible – even if it is merely coincidental – into the results of the Opening Day tournament, look no further than the winner of the prior two Opening Day events. The Stompers emerged victorious in this tournament in both 2017 and 2018 and went onto capture the Mid Atlantic Championship both seasons. Winning on Opening Day guarantees nothing, but history suggests it is not completely irrelevant. A tournament win is important, no matter the time of year.
What about those nine teams that finish somewhere other than first place on the 20th? What can they gleam from their performance on Opening Day? The history lesson here is that there really is no lesson.
In 2017, the York Yaks lost their first two games of the season to the Stompers and Bruisers, respectively, on their way to finishing third out of four teams in the inaugural tournament. After another struggle in June, the Yaks held steady and reeled off three straight finals appearances including two straight titles in July and August on their way to clinching the top seed in the Championship Tournament. For their part, the Bruisers looked like a team destined to win a tournament title after their April 2017 debut, but lost a key player in July and were never quite the same afterwards. Last season, the Yaks started poorly again going 0-3 on Opening Day but this time, they were never able to recover. ERL got out of the blocks with a 1-2 record in 2018 courtesy of a pair of 1-run losses to that’s days championship game participants (Stompers and Naturals). Taking his team’s performance on Opening Day to heart, Connor Young made sweeping changes over the next couple of tournaments. ERL got back on track and eventually captured a regular season title. The Naturals – poised to be a regular contender if they chose to be – were not to return. A lot happens at the first tournament of the year but only some if it is a harbinger for the rest of the season.
The impact this Opening Day tournament will have on the season is particularly difficult to gauge because all of the ten teams in the field are expected to be at least semi-regulars on the Mid Atlantic circuit this summer. Those are uncharted waters in this organization. There is also the winkle of being able to qualify for the Championship Tournament this summer by finishing first or second in any single tournament. If that was in place in prior years – 2018 in particular – the Championship Tournament may have looked significantly different. The dynamics of the 2019 season will be different – you can bet on that – but in what ways and to what extent is anyone’s guess. It is hard to predict the impact of this year’s first tournament precisely because how the rest of the summer is shrouded in mystery itself.
All of that is a long-winded way of writing that nobody knows what is going to go down on the 20th or during the summer. Anything you think of could – and anything may – happen. The slate is clean; everyone is in first place when the race begins. And that is exactly what makes Opening Day so special.
Playing out of: Alexandria, Virginia
Tournament Roster: Jerry Hill (c), Chris Owen
Inactive: Tony Manelli
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 3-15
One of the three original Mid Atlantic teams, the Barrel Bruisers scuffled in their sophomore season. A year after finishing third in the regular season, the Bruisers failed to get out of the starting blocks in ‘18. They picked up a win last Opening Day against the Yaks and then failed to pick up another win against a team that wasn’t the InHumans the rest of the way. Nothing seemed to go right for them as they lost one player mid-season, went one tournament with just one regular player (and a sub), and suffered through a club wide and summer long offensive slump. That their season ended with team captain Jerry Hill doing everything in his power not to break his bat into two after striking against Adam Milsted was apropos of the struggles his team endured all summer long.
Nonetheless, when you parse the Bruisers’ 2018 game results log you see a season that could have ended up a whole lot different with a few breaks here and there. It started with a 1-0 loss via a walk against the Cuban Raft Riders in their season opener and continued in May with a walk-off loss to the Yaks following a near strikeout and a 0-0 total bases loss to ERL. In June, Hill went at it with a substitute player and nearly beat NWLA Tournament Champions the WILL Waves if not for a couple of close judgment calls. At the Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament, Jerry was one out away from upsetting the Lemon Heads in the first game of the day only to see the win slip through his grasps. It was that kind of season for the Bruisers.
Do not expect the Bruisers to allow their 2018 struggles to creep into 2019. The team has already turned the page. Chris Owen had a marvelous winter league on the rubber due to some newly developed pitches and a consistent uptick in velocity. As always, Jerry continued to work all off-season to improve both sides of his game. He also found time to do some scouting and the team hopes to add another player or two that can help them get back on track in 2019. Playing as a two-man on Saturday, Jerry and Chris will have plenty of swings each as they try to shake off whatever befell their bats last season.
Playing out of: Medford, New Jersey
Tournament Roster: Connor Young (c), Jordan Robles, Ty Wegerzn, Kevin Norris
Inactive: Dan Whitener, Johnny Costa
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 19-6
Before the dust had even settled on the 2018 Mid Atlantic season, ERL captain Connor Young sketched out a plan for his team in 2019. After finishing 2nd and 3rd in the 2017 and 2018 Mid Atlantic Championship tournaments, respectively, Soup decided to go for the jugular in ’19. Tearing down the ERL roster until it was just himself and Dan Whitener left, Young then set out to find the complimentary pieces needed to deliver ERL its first Mid Atlantic title. He didn’t have to look very far to find the first piece, grabbing Jordan Robles from the rebuilding Stompers. With an eye on having a deep but lean roster, Young finished things off by adding another two-way player in Johnny Costa. The end result is a team that is not deep in numbers, but incredibly rich in talent. The makeup of the team was strictly by design – no excess, just four high-quality, two-way players
It was and is a great plan, but even the best laid plans can go awry. While the team was always aware that they would be without Dan Whitener on Opening Day due to college baseball commitments, Costa ended up as a late scratch. ERL could have just gone with what they had, played as the most insanely intense two-man team imaginable, and likely been just fine. Apparently not wanting to leave much to chance, Young and Robles called for backups. What do you do when you are without two of the game’s best players? Call in two more of the game’s best as the replacements. Reportedly, ERL will be joined by Ty Wegerzn and Kevin Norris on Opening Day.
That move would place the ERL roster at full capacity from the jump, similar to the Juggernauts. It is an awe inspiring foursome, one that could in theory save two high end pitchers for the elimination round. Soup might be the “weak link” offensively by default, which says it all right there. ERL drew a reasonable pool play schedule, but with two early day opponents that cannot be taken lightly and an early afternoon meeting with the Juggernauts, the path to the elimination round is not necessarily a clear one – a fact the team seemingly acknowledged in adding Wegerzn and Norris rather than playing as a twosome.
Playing out of: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Tournament Roster: Chris Sarnowski (c), Ryan McElrath, Tim McElrath, Dan Potter, Adam Milsted
Inactive: Ben Stant
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: n/a
It takes some moxie to bestow on your brand new team a name that literally means “overwhelming force” but in this case, it might be warranted. At a full six players deep before the first pitch of the year has been thrown, the Juggernauts are a loaded and impressive squad. Their team captain would have won every MAW regular season award in 2019 if Soup hadn’t beaten him to the punch. Ryan McElrath holds a claim as the sport’s best all-around player. Dan Potter is a proven high level defender and hitter, while Adam Milsted is a very good all-around player capable of providing quality innings early in a tournament. Ben Stant might just be the best hitter on the team, which is saying a lot on a club that also includes Ryan McElrath, Potter, and Sarno. And Tim McElrath hasn’t even been mentioned yet.
The kind of depth the Juggernauts possess is rare and unique, which will make them an interesting team to follow this upcoming season. Red has made it known that his pitching plans include holding Ryan back for the championship round and laying off Stant (and his injured right arm) as much as possible. That would seem to indicate that Sarno and Milsted will handle the bulk of the team’s pool play pitching duties. On offense, all six Juggernauts can hit. If there is a red flag with the team, it is that they might have too many good hitters which as far as problems go, isn’t a bad one to have. However, if they bat five or even four players in certain games they are potentially taking important at bats away from Ryan or Stant, when in theory hitters like that should get as many chances as possible. And you can’t sit any of these six players even for a game, right?
Only ERL carries as high of expectations with them as the Juggernauts do going into the 2019 season. If sheer depth of talent wins out, then you can expect to see the Juggernauts standing tall many, many times this summer, perhaps starting with Opening Day.
Playing out of: Jackson, New Jersey
Tournament Roster: Tim Beck, Dave Clark, [third player]
Inactive: Matt Crispe, Ray Lutick
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 10-5
Needless to say, when a team is without the pitcher that threw 92% of their innings the prior year (and high quality innings at that), there is no way to spin that as a positive for their chances of winning the tournament. Without Ray Lutick on Opening Day, the Lemons go from being a top contender to something other than that.
However, Ray’s absence is not all bad news for the Lemon Head faithful. One player’s absence is another player’s opportunity. Ray’s rubber arm in some ways served as a crutch for the team last season. On occasion they tested out Matt Crispe and Tim Beck on the flat mound, but both were given the quick hook when they struggled because Ray was right there as a backup option. Well on Saturday, they won’t have the Lutick safety net and that might be a good thing. Beck has potential but like many fledgling wiffs pitchers has struggled with his command in his abbreviated MAW appearances. And those appearances have been very limited – just 1 2/3 regular season innings and another 1 2/3 in the 2018 Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament. A developing pitcher needs innings and Beck will get some on Saturday. The results are less important than making progress. Likewise, Dave Clark will get a good read on how his battered shoulder can or cannot hold up under the stress of a throwing a tournament game.
The team is rumored to have a third player with them from their Jackson Wiffleball League who could potentially could also see take some innings. The Lemon’s would benefit from finding another pitching option or two for the rest of the season and Opening Day may help them sort all of that out.
Playing out of: Ridley Park, Pennsylvania
Tournament Roster: Dylan Harshaw (c), Sean Bingnear, Colin Pollag
Inactive: Tyler Nachbar, Tommy Loftus, Cam Farro
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 6-5
The re-addition of Tommy Loftus after successful back surgery gives the Longballs a 1-2 pitching punch that will make them a contender all season long. However, we will have to wait a little while longer before seeing how a Bingnear-Loftus combo looks in a regular season tournament. Tommy will be absent Opening Day due to baseball commitments.
Loftus’ absence – and to an extent, Tyler Nachbar’s as well – will once again leave the high pressure pitching duties to Bingnear. Sean was strong in that role last year and routinely held high quality teams to one run or fewer. Unfortunately, he also routinely found himself on the wrong end of total base or 1-0 loses due to the Longballs struggles in scoring runs. All three members of their Opening Day roster can hit, it is just a matter of doing it both consistently and in the clutch. A winning formula for the Longballs on Opening Day will likely resemble the formula they used in order to go 2-0 in the opening round of the Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament last fall. Harshaw and Pollag each hit a game a winning home run in that tournament while Bingnear and Nachbar kept their opponent’s off the scoreboard completely. Timely power hitting and shutdown pitching is always a formula for success, but it could be a particularly important to the Longball’s Opening Day chances.
The Longballs will need another pitcher to deliver quality innings on Opening Day if they are to make a deep run and they will likely look for Pollag to provide those. Colin’s struggles on the rubber outside of the RPWL are well-documented and not lost on either him or his teammates. His 3.47 MAW ERA last year was on the high side and was driven by both an inability to consistently throw strikes (25 walks) and a knack for giving up the Longball (3 HR in 15 innings pitched). Colin has the stuff to succeed, it is just a matter of harnessing both his control and command on a more regular basis outside of RPWL.
Playing out of: Albany, New York
Tournament Roster: Jimmy Cole (c), Ryan Bush, Kyle VonSchleusingen, Anthony LaValley
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: n/a
The NY Meats will travel south to Pennsylvania on Saturday looking to make an immediate impact in Mid Atlantic.
Pound for pound the Meats are as strong as any team in the field. At four pitchers deep, they will likely be the richest pitching team in the tournament. Bush and K-Von are both aces. Its stating the obvious that having two such pitchers on one staff is an awesome advantage and provides a lot of flexibility. Is there another team in the field on Saturday that could throw a fresh pitcher the caliber of a Bush or K-Von in a must-win final pool play game without even having to bat an eyelash? Three of the four Meats pitchers might only pitch one game (or maybe even less than one game), which means their opponents will have to deal with a fresh-ish pitcher almost every inning.
Offensively, the Meats stack up just as nicely. Cole is a constant threat at the dish and K-Von is a well-seasoned hitter. Both have familiarity with the more accomplished pitchers that they will potentially face this weekend. Cole’s bat was uncharacteristically quiet last Opening Day when he played as a member of the Cuban Raft Riders but it is probably safe to chalk that up as an anomaly. The keys to the Meats offensively might be Bush and LaValley. Bush has unreal power potential but can run hot or cold. LaValley is a good hitter with a good idea at the plate but like most can struggle with his consistency. If both of those players can come through big once or twice during the day, then you’ve got to like the Meats’ chances.
The Meats have an opportunity to drastically alter the dynamic of Mid Atlantic this season. There would be no bigger statement towards that end than walking away with the top prize on Opening Day.
New School Risers
Playing out of: Salisbury, Maryland
Tournament Roster: Dave Capobianco (c), Kyleigh Capobianco, Matt Capobianco
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 4-3
Speaking of crashing the party, the New School Risers did just that last May at MAW’s Torneo de Wiffs tournament. Dave Capobianco and his children/teammates arrived in York as a wild card. A decade earlier, Dave was a top level player for the Old School Risers but there was little information to go off of beyond that. Dave quickly showed he hadn’t lost a step. The Risers dropped competitive games to the Stompers and ERL – the two favorites in that particular tournament – while picking up blowout wins over the Bruisers and Yaks. Earning a play-in game against the Longballs, Dave deposited a Sean Bingnear pitch over the right field fence on Buffalo to put the Risers in the elimination round. Against ERL, the kids stepped up in the 5th inning when Matt walked and Kyleigh tripled off Blake Hoffman to give their team the lead. The Risers eventually closed out the game for good courtesy of Dave’s second game winning home run in as many opportunities.
Although Dave’s left arm ran out of gas in the finals of that tournament – pitching all 27 innings for your team will do that – the Risers’ unexpected run was one of the top stories of the 2018 season. This go-around, the Risers won’t have the element of surprise on their side but they do come in more experienced. The team knows what to expect and rumor has it that Dave might not have to handle all of the pitching this time.
The Risers are saddled with a difficult draw but at this point it shouldn’t be a shock if the Capobianco clan finds a way into the final four once again. Dave’s pitching arsenal and approach – coupled with his left-handedness – could make him a difficult challenge for hitters who aren’t used to his style. There’s also the fact that he clobbered the ball last May to the tune of a .371/.489/.743 slash line while facing tough pitchers like Sarno, Whitener, Hoffman, and Bingnear. Matt and Kyleigh reached base in about 30% of their plate appearances last season and if they can repeat or better that on Saturday, the Risers should have enough offensive firepower to pull out some close wins.
Playing out of: Ridley Park, Pennsylvania
Tournament Roster: Joey VanHouten (c), Vinny Albanese, Ryan Drecher, Nate Smith, Frankie Campanile
Inactive: Jack Libero
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 1-3
In eight games last season – not all on the same team – the Shortballs’ three pitchers registered a line of 26 IP, 12 H, 24 BB, and 3 R, which was good for a 0.77 ERA. That is the [very] good news for the team – they can definitely pitch. With Ryan Drecher leading the way, the trio of Drecher, Campanile, and Smith have the stuff, experience, and ability to quiet the bats of opposing teams. The bad news is despite their pitching successes, the Shortballs managed just a 1-3 record in their one tournament together. Two of those losses were suffered on 0-0 total base games (one to the Yaks, one to the Longballs).
Clearly, the key for the Shortballs is finding some way to scratch a run or two across. To address their offensive woes, VanHouten added Jack Libero to the team this winter. The acquisition paid immediate dividends in the Winter Classic when Libero’s two-home run game helped lift the Shortballs over Has Been Field in a pivotal match up. Unfortunately, Jack – a quality high school baseball player – will miss Opening Day, leaving the other five Shortballs to pick up the offensive slack.
The Shortballs drew a manageable pool play schedule. If they can avoid coming up on the short end of the stick in total base games, they could play deeper into the day this time around.
Playing out of: Baltimore, Maryland
Tournament Roster: Tim Cooke (c), Gino Joseph, Tom Gannon, Brice Clark
Inactive: Blake Hoffman
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 20-5
The Stompers were a team at a crossroads in 2017. Injuries and age took its toll on a team that realistically reached its peak more than a decade earlier. Rather than hang it up, they made the decision to try and hang on for a final run. To do so, they brought in some reinforcements. Jordan Robles was added at the tail end of the 2017 season and was the difference maker at the end of the season. Sarno joined the team in 2018 and had an MVP caliber season to lead the Stompers to their second straight Mid Atlantic title. With Nick Schaefer heading for retirement, Dan Isenberg virtually there already, and two titles in the bag, it was clear that it was the perfect time for a change. Sarno and Robles left the team on good terms after the 2018 season and the Stompers embarked on a new chapter.
That new chapter begins on Saturday. The Stompers begin their rebuilding process by rolling out a roster that includes a trio of young players, two of whom will be making their Mid Atlantic debuts. The three additions – Gino Joseph, Tom Gannon, and Brice Clark – all have pitching experience which gives the team some level of depth to work with. Gino cemented himself as the preemptive rotation leader heading into the Opening Day tournament thanks to a strong pitching performance at the Winter Classic. Gannon and Clark give the team a couple of high upside left arms to work with during the day.
Not all dissimilar to the Shortballs, the Stompers will have to find ways to consistently move runs across so the quality pitching they expect to have can hold up. For that they will look to their veteran Opening Day roster member and captain, Tim Cooke. A career .267/.391/.382 hitter in Mid Atlantic known for his solid plate approach, Tim will try to set the table for his young teammates. Clark – who is still familiarizing himself with this version of wiffs – had a strong 2018 NWLA Tournament offensively and will attempt to translate that output to this environment.
Playing out of: York, Pennsylvania
Tournament Roster: Nick Shirey (c), Jarod Bull, Jared Laird, Jordan Reichard
2018 MAW Regular Season Record: 9-14
The Yaks will also take the field in 2019 without two significant pieces from their 2018 squad. With Potter and Milsted now on the Juggernauts, the Yaks are – at the moment – down to a four player core of Nick Shirey, 2017 Rookie of the Year recipient Jarod Bull, Jared Laird, and Jordan Reichard.
Although they are technically down a regular pitcher with the loss of Milsted, the reality is that there were very few times in 2018 – one to be exact – when Bull and Milzy were on the field at the same time. They will be shorter on pitching to start this season, but not necessarily as short as one might think when factoring that in. The Yaks’ 2018 pitching strategy when Bull was around entailed sneaking into the elimination round with Bull throwing as few innings as possible and then riding him as long as they could from there. The strategy proved moderately successful but will be slightly more difficult to pull off this season without Potter to eat up some innings and without Milsted to serve as Bull’s set up man. Could we see the Yaks take a different approach this year? Might they instead go full-on in pool play – which means using Bull for at least one if not two games – and then let the chips fall where they may? If so, the Yaks could end up as a significant pool play spoiler on Opening Day and beyond.
The Yaks are all veteran hitters, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are patient. They will take their hacks. Sometimes the hits will follow, sometimes they won’t. Defensively they are a solid team with Bull and JR in particular standing out as good athletes and quality defenders. Shirey has been around the block many, many times and there isn’t much wiffs strategy he hasn’t carefully considered. His wiffleball acumen could be the difference between the Yaks bowing out under .500 or getting a shot at making the elimination round.
If you are not at the tournament, you can follow along with the action live on the Mid Atlantic Facebook page. In addition to broadcasting two pool play games and the tournament finals, the debut of First Pitch - MAW’s new “pre-game” show - is scheduled for Opening Day. Former Stomper and pitching great, Nick Schaefer, will call the action.
You can also follow along on the MAW social media pages for score updates and more. As always, highlights of the event will be up on YouTube in the week(s) following the tournament.