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Rafael's gets offensive to win league

It has taken Rafael's Outlaws four years to get to the top of the Carroll County Men's Softball League. But the trip was well worth the trouble.

Rafael's, named for the downtown Westminster restaurant which sponsors it, swept four tournament games in late July to take the league's Tuesday Division postseason championship.

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But that climb to the top wasn't easy.

Rafael's began as a group of mostly college baseball players with some older guys filling in. Manager Gary Cupp wanted to bring his raw talents along and develop them by having them to play in the Men's League and in high-powered tournaments. They began getting better and better.

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His ultimate goal was -- and is -- for them to win a national title.

However, it would take awhile for those kids to even make the transition from baseball to slow-pitch softball. They were middle-of-the-pack in their Men's League division the first two years.

At the beginning of last year, Cupp thought they were ready to roll. He thought they would be formidable in the Carroll County Men's Softball League.

It turned out that they weren't so formidable.

"We didn't do as well as we thought we should have done, and we had a bad tournament last year," Cupp related.

They were again middle-of-the pack during the regular season. Then they lost two of three games to quickly exit the postseason championship tournament. But Cupp wasn't giving up.

This year he again had high hopes. The younger players had graduated from college. They would have time to play in more weekend tournaments, thus toughening themselves with top-notch competition in their drive to the top.

In addition, there were four talented new players to boost the team.

And finally, there still eight players left from Rafael's first year (2011). Their accumulated experience and cohesion would be useful this season.

Cupp also planned to use his players a little differently this time around. Like many Men's League teams that play in tournaments, Rafael's had used the Men's League regular season primarily to keep its players ready for those weekend competitions.

Cupp had a big roster and rotated players in and out to give them at-bats during the week.

This season though, he became more inclined to play a set lineup and keep players in their accustomed positions. This meant steadier -- and better – play in their league games.

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They had started well by winning the Independent Softball Association's (ISA) Spring Thaw Tournament out in Frederick.

But things were a little rough in the league at first; Rafael's lost four of its first five games.

"We were facing some of the better teams, and it took awhile for us to get our lineup down," Cupp explained.

"But after that, we won 16 games in a row."

At regular season's end, Rafael's was 17-4, second only to Illuminati.

There were a lot of things to like about Rafael's Outlaws this year.

The fielding was better than in the past.

"We are a relatively young team with an average age of 22-23. I like my defense. We have guys who can run it down. Defense is not a liability for us," Cupp said.

Newcomer Keith Diggs made a big impact on defense and otherwise. He tightened the infield defense from his shortstop position and pounded the ball from his spot in the middle of the batting order.

Then, there were the homers-and league rules which encouraged them. Many tournaments severely restrict over-the-fence home runs. But the Men's League allows one shot per inning-seven in a seven-inning game.

Rafael's made good use of that allowance, usually popping out four or five dingers each game. Cupp considers that power to be his team's biggest strength this year.

However in addition to hitting home runs, his young players had finally matured all-around, offensively.

"I have always preached line drives. We grew as a young team and became more consistent hitters," their manager said.

All of these strengths would come together in July to make Rafael's invincible at the Carroll County Sports Complex.

It opened on July 22 by blanking the Roughnecks, 12-0, in a run-shortened five-inning affair, burying its opponent with a steady drumbeat. Joel Plank pitched the shutout.

"We scored in every inning, 3...3...3...just the way I like," Cupp observed.

It was the same incessant attack against Rill's Construction in game two. Rafael's won that one, 11-7.

The scoring drumbeat grew even louder in the final two games played on July 30.*

Cupp had expected L-M Tire to be his toughest opponent. But his team won, 15-0. Pitcher Pat Smith threw the shutout.

L-M came through the losers' bracket to face the Outlaws again. But it shouldn't have bothered. Rafael's nailed the lid down on its coffin with a 17-2 triumph in the final.

Rafael's hitting statistics bordered on the silly. It batted .711 as a team, and nobody hit less than .550.

Diggs and Colin Hunter each batted a lofty .750 in the tourney but finished no better than tied for second. Smith went 13-for-13.

He and Diggs each had four or five home runs. In its four games, the team pounded out 16.

Cupp loved the unbelievable numbers and steady, inning-by-inning run production that buried four opponents. But even now, two months later, he remains shocked about it.

Looking back, he says, "there was way too much competition up there for us to think we could walk through it that way."

He credits the ease of the triumph with the fact that his players had gone after it full bore because," there was something on the table to win," as he put it.

They continued that success in other tournaments, too. Rafaels was second in a USSSA Labor Day affair in Glen Burnie. It also finished among the top five in ISA and Softball Nation of America national championship qualifier tournaments.

Two weeks ago, the Outlaws played in the SNA national championship tourney, finishing 17th out of 68 teams.

Cupp makes no secret of his ultimate goal for the team -- to win a national championship tournament. But he nevertheless retains fond memories of the Carroll County Men's Softball League's Tuesday Division title tourney.

"It was definitely two good nights out there," he said, "there's no doubt about that."

Reach correspondent Mike Nortrup at 410-857-7896 or sports@carrollcountytimes.com.

Ideas wanted

If you know of a Carroll athlete, team, or league that deserves to be featured in the Rec Sports Spotlight, call sports editor Bob Blubaugh at 410-857-7895 or email him at bob.blubaugh@carroll countytimes.com.

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