Finksburg Lions 13-under travel baseball team coach Paul Dietz had high hopes for his squad in this year's Mid-Atlantic Baseball Association campaign.
All but three players were back from last year's second-place regular-season finisher. What's more, they and the three new additions had all looked good during spring practice.
"I figured we'd be in the running to win," Dietz said.
Instead, they started out 1-6 in their Piedmont Division.
Eventually though, they recovered to finish out the regular season on a roll and take the division postseason title. The primary reason for the slow start was an injured pitching staff.
Dietz's son Rocco and another starter, Christian Szarko, both suffered season-ending arm injuries very early and would be unable to take the mound. However, both played well in other positions.
Dietz and assistants Ed Devan and Kevin Bald found able replacements. Aaron Bald and Krishnan Rangarajan became solid starting pitchers, and George Ambrose-Giordani was an effective, hard-throwing reliever.He would close out nine victories during the year.
After their slow start, the Lions gained momentum. They won four of their next seven games before closing out the regular season on a nice five-game winning streak. Besides the pitching, fielding and hitting also improved as the regular season progressed.
"We made fewer errors. And when we did make one, we always made the next play,” Dietz said. “We started doing the little things. When you do the little things, the big things don't happen. We also started hitting together and in bunches. And, we started taking more walks."
Still, the Lions were only fourth at 10-9 in their 13-under Piedmont Division when the regular season ended.
This wasn't what their coach had predicted. However, despite the mediocre regular season record, its strong finish again had him looking ahead with confidence.
"To be honest, I was super confident we'd at least make the final round.I felt we'd be there in the end," he said.
However, Dietz's prediction again looked foolish in light of Game 1 on June 11. Lutherville-Timonium Rec Council thumped his Lions 13-5.
Things started well for his team which scored three first inning runs. However, LTRC responded with nine over its first two at-bats and pulled away with the help of sloppy fielding, which gave the Baltimore County kids six unearned runs.
"It was a bad showing for us all the way," the coach said.
Rangarajan reached twice on a walk and double and scored two runs for Finksburg. Lucas Beckwith was 2-for-3 and Aaron Bald had a two-run triple.James Devan had a hit and walk.
Sent to the consolation bracket, the Lions could lose no more in the double-elimination affair. In game two, it broke a 4-4 tie with three seventh-inning runs to win 7-4 over Putty Hill.
Ambrose-Giordani's sacrifice fly plated the go-ahead run in that frame. He, Nicholas Dunford and Ryan Jordan each went 2-for-4. Dylan Ballantine also got a hit; he also played outstanding defense at third in this game and throughout the series.
Rangarajan pitched Finksburg to a 6-1 win over Hampstead in Game 3. He went five innings and yielded only four hits plus the run. Kyle Hoot hurled two perfect innings in relief.
Jordan threw out two would-be base stealers in one inning in that game, and he would stop six in the tournament. Bald threw four shutout innings in a "mercy rule"-shortened, 12-0 win over LTRC in Game 4. Rocco Dietz was on base three times and scored twice for the winners.
Szarko reached three times, scored a run and drove one in.
The June 16 championship game was an all-Carroll affair between Finksburg and Hampstead at Schooley Mill Park near Columbia. The North Carroll kids erupted for five runs in the top of the first inning and looked to be the winners.
But the Lions scored four runs in the third inning to tie things and two more in the fourth to go ahead for good.
Beckwith and Dietz had run-scoring singles in the third inning rally, and Szarko singled in the go-ahead run in the fourth.
Bald had the biggest day though. Entering in relief with no outs in the first inning, he finished out that frame and wound up pitching a complete game for the 8-6 victory.
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Hampstead had a runner on third in the seventh inning, and he was trying to distract Bald who was undoubtedly growing tired at this point.
Paul Dietz, in a mound conference with his pitcher, advised him to let the pesky runner steal home with his team leading 8-5 at that point. That would allow his hurler to concentrate better on the subsequent hitters.
Bald went in to a wind-up allowing the runner to come home and score a sixth run for Hampstead. But with the bases now empty, the Finksburg hurler got the remaining hitters, including the last one on a strikeout, out to preserve the win.
"The boys were absolutely excited,” Dietz said. “Aaron had thrown 40 pitches earlier in the day (against LTRC), and they supported him in the game and had his back.”
He intends to coach the team next year. It moves up to under-14, and Dietz says he wants to pick up a few additional players to strengthen the squad.he is looking for pitchers in particular.
But even if he does strengthen the team with additional players, it will be hard to outclass the year he just had.
“I want to stay with the kids. I really love it. This season was very rewarding," Dietz said.