In the 23rd game of its inaugural summer in Little League baseball, New Jersey’s Upper Township 9/10-year-old all-star team completed its whirlwind journey in spectacular form.
Playing in the championship game of the East Regional in Cranston, R.I., against Rhode Island’s Lincoln Little League on Saturday, New Jersey sent 15 men to the plate in the bottom of the first inning and scored 11 times, setting the tone in a 16-4, mercy-rule shortened victory.
Thanks to the offensive explosion, the New Jersey state champs and Mid-Atlantic champs added the title of East Region champs to their long list of summer accomplishments.
Upper Township became the second straight New Jersey team to win the title, as Monroe Township won the tournament a year ago.
“For us to win the states and then come here and win this thing, it’s pretty incredible,” said New Jersey manager Mike Liebrand. “I would have laughed at you if you told me we would win the whole thing at the beginning of it.”
But New Jersey not only won the whole thing, out-lasting 10 other teams from the East Coast, it dominated, especially when it mattered most.
After a 3-1 record in pool play, with its only loss coming when Pennsylvania rallied from a seven-run sixth-inning deficit, New Jersey avenged its loss to Pennsylvania in the Mid-Atlantic championship game on Friday night with a 9-6 win, and then carried that momentum into Saturday, where it left no doubt as to which team was the best in the region.
“The kids wanted to go up and hit,” Liebrand said. “That’s the name of the game. Hit the ball and field it. Great job by them.”
Rhode Island was left with a tough defeat, yet still was overjoyed with its summer. It won the state and New England championships, becoming the first team from Rhode Island to win the New England title in the five-year history of the tournament.
“It’s incredible what these kids accomplished,” said Rhode Island manger Ken LaBrie. “Top eight teams in the country, really, when you look at the format of the tournament. It’s really just unbelievable.”
Rhode Island actually took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, as Alex Ferranti’s single scored Kaden Ethier.
Yet, New Jersey’s Cohl Mercado battled out of a jam, leaving the bases loaded and limiting the damage to just one run.
Then it was New Jersey’s turn.
The first six batters reached base in the onslaught, and it just kept coming. Ben Hoag reached on an error, Mercado singled, Ben Liebrand singled, Tommy Finnegan doubled, Dylan Oliver and Tristan Laughlin walked and Brendan McGonigle brought home a run on a fielder’s choice.
At that point it was already 4-1, and a wild pitch from Rhode Island starter Nathan Kelly made it 5-1. New Jersey’s Hoag, Mercado, Liebrand, Finnegan and Oliver all followed with RBI hits, making the score 11-1.
Mercado, Liebrand and Finnegan each had two hits in the inning.
“We’ve got a lot of great hitters,” Mike Liebrand said. “They’re going to hit a fastball down the middle, and that’s basically what happened. We just sprayed the ball all over the place.”
Rhode Island, though it still fought, had little chance to recover.
“We actually coached that,” LaBrie said. “We said, ‘Let’s make them hit the ball,’ because our defense was so strong. The defense just didn’t come out strong enough in the first inning and the next thing you know we’re down by nine, 10 runs.”
From there, New Jersey set out to protect its 10-run cushion, and it didn’t have much trouble. Rhode Island was able to get a run off Mercado in the second on a sacrifice fly by Ethier, but New Jersey came right back with four more runs in the second inning. Mercado added to his big day with a two-run double, while Finnegan knocked in his fourth run of the game with his third hit. Another came in on an error, giving New Jersey a 15-2 lead.
“It’s kind of uncharacteristic of us for our defense to play a little bit less than what we’ve been doing,” LaBrie said.
Trying to avoid the 10-run rule, Rhode Island grabbed another run on a wild pitch in the third inning before Mercado hit his pitch limit and was removed with two outs in the frame. Tristan Loughlin came on and Rhode Island got another run on a wild pitch, but Loughlin induced a fly out to retire the side and keep New Jersey ahead 15-4.
“Our pitcher Cohl Mercado really stepped up, threw 70 great pitches,” Liebrand said.
New Jersey tacked on one more run in the third inning on an RBI fielder’s choice off the bat of Hoag, and then in the top of the fourth it closed out the game.
Rhode Island got a leadoff single from Ferranti, but Laughlin buckled down to retire the next two batters. A double by Kelly gave Rhode Island second and third with two down, yet Laughlin got a groundout from the next man that he calmly handled and threw to first for the final out.
Upper Township Little League had passed the final test.
“It’s incredible,” Liebrand said. “I thank the parents. It’s been a long journey, lot of games. We played 23 games. A lot of teams don’t play anywhere near that many to get to that point. We come from a big state with a lot of Little Leagues.”
Team members on the 2014 East Region champions are Ben Hoag, Cohl Mercado, Ben Liebrand, Tommy Finnegan, Dylan Oliver, Tristan Laughlin, Brendan McGonigle, Will Moffitt, Ryan Couse, Joe Garcia and Joe Brace. The manager is Mike Liebrand, with coaches Dan Mercado and Jason Couse.