Princeton 12s at 2-1 in District 12 Play; Poised to Meet the Challenges Ahead
By Matt Manley
After cruising through the first two games of pool play during the 2004 District 12 Little League, Coach Dave Etherton and his Princeton squad knew its toughest test was still ahead. Unfortunately for Princeton, they did not pass this test.
Princeton fell to Sunnybrae on Sunday at Grover Park in Princeton in a gut-wrenching 2-1 game that had all the ingredients of a baseball classic: dominant pitching, big defensive plays, and clutch hitting. In the end, Sunnybrae had just a little more of these ingredients than Princeton did.
"We knew this was going to be a good team," said Etherton, whose team is now 2-1 in Pool C play following wins of 4-1 and 9-2 over Florence and Lawrence, respectively. "The pitchers that they threw in the first two games weren't as good as the kid they threw today, so I think they were saving him for us."
Starting pitcher Tom Dooling was nearly flawless for Sunnybrae, who was the home team despite playing in Princeton. He baffled Princeton's hitters with a sharp curve ball that helped him limit the opposition to one run in 5 and one-third innings while striking out five and allowing just six hits and no walks. He also gained high praise from Etherton.
"He (Dooling) had a wicked curve that kept our guys off balance for most of the game," said Etherton. "Our guys don't get to see a pitcher throw a curve ball with that kind of command very often, so it was a hard adjustment for them. You have to give him credit. He won them the game."
As good as Dooling was for Sunnybrae, Danny Powell may have been even better for Princeton. During his four innings of work, Powell allowed no runs on just one hit and two walks, while striking out seven batters.
After giving up his first hit of the game in the fourth, sandwiched by two walks, Powell was at his best. With runners on second and third and one out, he struck out the next batter, and then issued his second walk of the game to the next. After falling behind 3-1 to pinch-hitter P.J. Lucci, Powell then threw two perfect pitches to get his third strikeout of the inning and end the threat.
"He came out and threw really nice," said Etherton of Powell, who also went 2-3 at the plate. "He wasn't really comfortable with his off-speed pitches, but he used his fastball very effectively. He worked hard and after the fourth he was ready to come out."
After three innings without a run for either team, Princeton finally broke through in the fourth inning when Powell singled to score Will Mooney with the go-ahead run.
But in the bottom of the fifth, Sunnybrae took the lead for good when Julian Calcese doubled home the tying and winning runs with two outs on a rocket to the right-centerfield gap off of relief pitcher Jordan Metro, who was the winning pitcher in Saturday's win over Lawrence.
Princeton, though, did not go quietly. After lead-off hitter Nick Covello grounded out to start the inning, Steve Etherton and Mooney put together back-to-back singles to chase starting pitcher Tim Dooling. Following the pitching change, Powell laced what looked like a game-tying single into centerfield, but Etherton was cut-off at the plate on a perfect relay throw. Sunnybrae sealed the victory when Aaron Wishnick grounded out to end the game.
When asked about the adjustments that his team needs to make for the rest of the tournament, Etherton pointed to the quality of the team's at bats as an issue.
"We need to recognize the pitches, but it's tough to teach the kids because they don't have much experience in hitting against these pitchers who have more live stuff," added Etherton. "They just need to learn from every at-bat and make adjustments."
Despite the need to improve quickly, Etherton is certain that his team will be prepared for the rest of the tournament
"They'll bounce back well," said Etherton, whose club will need to beat North Trenton this Wednesday in order to advance to the Final Eight of the District 12 competition.
"This group has been playing together for a long time, so they are pretty seasoned ballplayers. There really isn't anything they haven't seen."
Experience is the name of the game for Princeton, who Etherton believes is getting better with every game. Before Sunday's game against Sunnybrae, the Princeton players were unfamiliar with the pitching style that handcuffed some of its players.
As Princeton heads into its must-win game against North Trenton, the experience gained from Sunday's setback should have it better prepared to ace its next big test.