Corey Heckel belted the first pitch of the home game against Mount Vernon Tuesday (4/16) for a double into the left centerfield. And before the inning was over, the Rams had batted around, scored six runs and were off to a 13-3 win that leveled their record at 4-4.
The Rams reached the break-even point after pulling out a 7-6 extra-inning slugfest against Pelham last Wednesday away.
Study in contrast
The contrast between the two games was like night and day.
In the win over the Mount Vernon Knights, for example, Henkel's opening two-base hit was followed in rapid order by a walk to Luke Masi, a double steal, three consecutive base hits by Anthony (AJ) Marini, Chris Hudson, Myles Durney, a walk to Joe Rinello (Joe Rye) and a base hit by Antonio (Tony) Roman.
In between that onslaught, the Mount Vernon right fielder dropped two fly balls, the right fielder was replaced by his coach and three successive Rams—Rabel Badia, Danny (Danny Carp) Carpinello and Heckel—struck out with the bases loaded to mercifully end the inning.
That early lead allowed junior Rams pitcher Mike Kessler to cruise through the first three innings, getting the win in his first varsity start after striking out two of the first three batters and exiting with a 6-3 lead.
Catcher in the Rye
His job was made easier by catcher Joe Rinello nailing two runners trying to steal in a game where every fly ball was an adventure because of the swirling wind gusts.
Rams head coach Eddie Martinez called the game conditions "Dancing with the Stars" because of the way the wind carried the ball. Especially when a fly ball kept soaring into the wind currents until it went over centerfielder Luke Masi's head, allowing two runs to score. And a pop foul behind the plate blew one way and then another, eventually dropping beyond Joe Rye's reach on a play that kept a Knights belated rally alive.
Those kinds of plays only added entertainment value to a rare 11 a.m. start spring break game that began like a nightmare for the Knights and was well beyond Mount Vernon's reach almost from the start.
Off and running
Especially after RBI base hits by Durney and Heckel, an RBI double by Masi and an RBI triple by Marini with almost every hit followed by a steal or double steal by one of the fastest Ram teams in years.
To make matters worse for the Knights or better for the Rams, depending on one's point of view, ex-Ram basketball player Denis Garcia, a 6:4, smooth-flowing, throwing machine, made his varsity pitching debut by striking out the first three batters he faced on 10 pitches while needing just nine pitches to get through his second inning with a strikeout and two weak fly balls.
"That was important to us because both Kessler and Garcia are juniors who benefited from their first varsity experience and that should help us down the line," Martinez said. "Their performance also gave us the chance to rest our Big 3 pitchers (Durney, Hudson and Bryan Morel) for the upcoming games ahead. Not that we took Mount Vernon for granted. But they were a team we thought we had a good chance to beat. And we did with quality at bats, quality fielding and quality pitching."
Martinez has been preaching what he calls that 3Q quality approach to the game and his Rams have been listening with a focus that has been missing from the Ram teams in the past.
That focus became increasingly obvious in the way the Rams listened to Martinez. In one instance, he kept urging Hudson to keep moving over and in closer in right field with the bases loaded. The Knights batter hit a line drive. Right to where Hudson was standing. Martinez couldn't have made it easier for Hudson to catch if he threw the ball right to him. Bottom line: End of an inning where that line drive could have meant a few runs for the Knights.
And all those Rams steals and double steals weren't an accident. The Rams listen closely to assistant coach Jack Thalheimer when he is stationed at first base. When Thalheimer says to go, they take off like his voice is a starter's pistol in Track & Field (T&F). And with Heckel and Masi running with T&F sprinting speed, the Rams are well on their way to a possible team base-stealing record.
Listen and learn
So the current Rams listen. And are willing to learn.
Last year's team was a lot better on paper, but they made 70 errors in 22 games, maybe because of a lack of focus or because they didn't try as hard. But for whatever reasons, this year's Rams may lack the star power of last year's All-Star infield of Luisbert Frias (3B), Michael Boccarossa (SS), Armond Yusi (2B) and Keshaun (Key) Ellis (1B), yet the current Rams infield compares more than favorably to that team with a relatively error-free lineup that includes Marini (3B), Heckel (SS), Carpinello (2B) and Durney (1B).
"A few years ago, we didn't make comebacks like this team does because they don't quit, they don't give up, and they don't give away runs because their pitchers throw strikes and our fielders don't throw the ball away," Martinez said. "And we make contact, we protect the outside corner and we don't take strikes on the outside the way we used to."
The extra-inning win over Pelham was a recent case in point.
Durney starts strong
Durney started that game and gave up three runs on four hits over six innings, striking out seven and walking one.
In that time, the game kept see-sawing back and forth, each team taking the other's best punch, getting back up and coming back for more until it looked as though the last team standing with the last at bat was going to stagger away with a never-say-die win.
And that was almost the way it happened. Accent on the almost.
The scoreboard kept changing with a who's on first regularity—the Rams were up 2-1 in the fourth inning, down 4-3 in the fifth, up 5-3 in the top of the seventh and last inning of regulation play only to see Pelham bounce back with two runs to tie in their last at bat.
Along the way, Masi, Marini and Rinello racked up multiple hits, Masi going 3 for 3 including a triple while Rinello also tripled with Carpinello, Kessler, Jack Mutino and Durney all coming up with clutch hits while Heckel (3), Marini (2) and Kessler (1) led the team in stolen bases.
The good and bad
That was all to the good. But Pelham is a very good hitting team. So they kept storming back, tagging Morel in relief for three runs on six hits while striking out three, walking one and holding on for the win. Barely.
Durney and Kessler got the big hits for the Rams in extra innings to give the Rams the lead. Pelham's rally in their last at bat in the bottom of the eighth came up one-run short.
But a win is a win even when it almost isn't. Almosts don't count. The Rams outhit Pelham 12-10, had seven strikeouts and left seven runners on base. It wasn't pretty. But they took Pelham's best shot. And were the last team standing, those two extra hits just enough to seal the win.
The road ahead
"Maybe a couple of years ago we don't win that kind of game," Martinez said. "This year so far we do."
The next few games should go a long way towards telling whether the Rams can go well over playing .500 ball because they are scheduled to go up against a very good John Jay/East Fishkill team after press time Wednesday (4/17) away at 3 p.m. with Ossining next up in an away-and-home series Monday (4/22) at 11 a.m. and next Wednesday (4/24) at 4:15 p.m. That will lead into the Rams’ own Foust Tournament at home next Saturday (4/27) with Port Chester opening against E. Ramapo at 9 a.m., Rye and Blind Brook the other teams competing in the tourney and the finals and consolation games scheduled to start at 2 p.m. The consolation game will be at Rec Park, the championship at PCHS.
Those games should indicate whether the Rams have a shot at making the playoffs for the third consecutive year under Martinez. They may lack star power and don't have a strong cleanup hitter or an awesome offense, but they are fast, learn quickly and don't crack in crunch time, so it would be a mistake to underestimate them.