by Austin Green
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Defense wins championships, or so the old saying goes. But it also helps when a team can take a punch and come right back with its own haymaker as soon as it gets a chance.
Dukes Baseball National showed that ability on Sunday, as the West Covina, Calif.-based squad rallied to defeat Slammers Twins out of Parker, Colo. by a score of 7-5 to win the Triple Crown Arizona Spring Championships Session 4 14uD1 title. The Dukes got it done with superb defense, timely hitting and three crucial innings of relief from Daniel Nageer to seal the victory.
“It’s a never-say-die mentality,” Dukes manager Cameron Saylor said. “They love the game, they know there are going to be those ups and downs and that they have to play until the end.”
Many teams could have folded when the Twins tagged Dukes starter Josh Turner for four runs in the top of the fourth, erasing an early 3-0 deficit and seizing the momentum. But Dukes came right back in the top of the inning, needing just three batters to tie the game at four runs apiece. Ayden Vieth singled, Raymond Castro walked, and Diego Villareal cranked an opposite-field RBI single into left field to even the score.
Three batters later, Jackson Annigan stepped into the batters’ box as a last-second pinch-hitter for Bryce Gonzales with the bases loaded, two out and the game tied.
“I didn’t even know I was going to come up to the plate,” Annigan said. “I couldn’t even get my batting gloves on, but I just knew that my team needed me.”
No batting gloves, no problem – Annigan smacked a ground ball into left field to give Dukes a 5-4 lead. The next batter, leadoff hitter Santiago Ramirez, followed with a two-run base hit to give Dukes some key insurance runs.
“We play the game one inning at a time,” Saylor said. “We don’t care what they do in an inning, we just know we have to match it or beat it.”
The Twins threatened to get right back into the game when Gavyn Bauer led off the top of the fifth with a walk and Nick Martensen reached on an error. Saylor pulled reliever Louis Farias in favor of Nageer, and Nageer responded with three shutout innings. He retired the last seven batters he saw and only faced the minimum in his final two frames despite going up against the heart of the Twins’ batting order.
“I felt good,” Nageer said. “Just kept my tempo, threw strikes and finished the job.”
He got some help from his defense as well. With two on and nobody out in the fifth, Slammers Twins’ Jordan Reiter cracked a hard ground ball up the middle. Dukes shortstop Sebastian Morinaga ranged to his left but misplayed the ball, kicking it to the other side of second base. It looked like the play would go down as a costly blemish on an otherwise stellar day with the glove for Morinaga, who made several nice defensive plays on grounders that could have easily gone for hits against shortstops without as much range.
But instead, Dukes second baseman Jeremiah Madrid scooped up Morinaga’s kicked ball, stepped on second, spun and fired to first for a spectacular double play that drew gasps from several spectators in attendance.
“Defense gets it done,” Saylor said. “Those guys are comfortable with it. We’ve got a lot of middle infielders who can flat-out play and help a lot with run prevention. That play with Jeremiah, he almost made it look like it was deliberate but it was just a heads-up ballplayer type of play.”
Dukes took advantage of some defensive miscues by Slammers Twins in the bottom of the first to jump out to an early lead. Ramirez reached on an error, took second on a wild pitch and stole third, putting himself in position to score on an RBI groundout from No. 2 hitter Carson Baker.
Jacob Jimenez extended the inning with a two-out double and Vieth walked to put two runners on for Castro, who slapped a routine ground ball to short. But the throw from Slammers Twins’ shortstop took the first baseman off the bag, allowing Jimenez to score. Castro took a wide berth from first and raced towards second while the Twins’ defense focused on Jimenez, and pitcher Kannon Smith’s attempt to throw Castro out at second sailed into center field, allowing Vieth to score.
Smith settled down after that, however, allowing his offense to momentarily flip the script in the fourth. Ryan Pardo and Smith cracked back-to-back one-out singles, and Cade Petersen reached on an error to load the bases. Chase Massey followed with a bases-loaded walk to bring home Slammers Twins’ first run of the afternoon and prompt Saylor to pull his starter, Turner, in exchange for Farias. But D.J. Foster followed with a game-tying two-run single to left, and Jackson Roper added a go-ahead sacrifice fly to give the Twins a 4-3 lead and put Dukes on their heels..
In the middle of the fourth, Saylor gathered his players and reminded them to believe in themselves. It turned out that they may not have needed much reminding.
“They know how to play,” Saylor said afterwards. “They understand the game, they know there’s ups and downs with it. Just believe, just do their thing, and they stayed after it and bounced right back.”