Westchester-Putnam MSBL/MABL

Mohegan Braves 10, Westchester Royals 8

‘Cobelli Walk-off Homer Cops Title for Braves’

Submitted by Jake Whitney, Mohegan Braves manager

Game one of the 2016 Westput MABL championship series — played at Navajo Field in Yorktown — got started under dramatic, ominous looking skies with heavy winds, making pop flies an adventure. After about an inning, however, the skies cleared up and the sun emerged, setting the stage for a beautiful day of baseball. The drama on the field would come later. The Braves got the scoring started early when manager Jake Whitney bashed a high breaking ball over the left field fence for a two-run home run. The Braves’ bats would stay hot all game — though it turned out the tater was all the scoring they would need. Pitcher Ray Cruz was masterful, chilling the Royals’ potent bats and allowing only a handful of hits in a complete game shutout. Offensive stars for the Braves were Greg Pezzuto, who went 4-4 with two doubles and four runs scored; Alex Pezzuto, who drilled a 2-run jack to right in the third; Jeff Cobelli (2-4 2RS); Joe Tomasulo (2-4 3RBI, RS); and Mike Shea(2-3). Braves 12, Royals 0.

Going into the nightcap, the Braves were feeling confident despite the fact that the Royals’ starter, Ralph Boniello, was hurling a challenging mix of hard fastballs and sinking knucklers. The Braves struck first again when Jeff Cobelli drew a walk, Alex Pezzuto ripped a double, and Whitney’s grounder to third was misplayed. The Braves would tack on four more in the third when Greg Pezzuto tripled home brother Alex, and Whitney and Cruz singled. Taking a 6-0 lead into the middle innings, the Braves felt good about their chances. Braves’ starter Josh Wolin was pitching well, getting the big outs when needed and keeping the Royals heavy hitters at bay. Big defensive plays were turned in by Jason Bopp in right field and Pezzuto in center field to cut short Royals’ threats. But everything changed in the fourth. After a couple of Royals’ hits and Braves’ misplays, the Royals plated their first run and pushed two more runners into scoring position. Nick Boniello, who had homered against the Braves in the regular season, stepped to the plate. Boniello proceeded to launch a homer over the right field fence to make the score 6-4 — and just like that the Royals were back in it.

A possible problem for the Braves was a lack of backup pitching options. Matt Rothfleisch, the Braves other main starter, and Jay Tomasulo, their long reliever, were unavailable. Cruz, who seemed to have the Royals’ number all year, was dying to get back on the mound. But was that smart? He had already pitched an entire game. Wouldn’t sending him back to the hill risk injury? The plan was floated to relieve Wolin in the fifth, but Wolin argued to stay in the game. Ultimately, Whitney felt that Wolin, who has been one of the best pitchers in the league over the past few years, had earned the right to make the call. He stayed in. Pitching with a renewed fire and showing why he’s the competitor that he is, Wolin tossed a sterling fifth and sixth, allowing no runs and carrying the Braves into the final frame with a 7-4 lead.

But things were just getting interesting. In the seventh, Wolin got the first batter to hit a grounder to third, but it was misplayed — an omen of things to come. Suddenly there were Royals’ runners on first and third with no outs. Cruz took the mound in relief. He was pumped up – but maybe too much. He plunked the first batter, loading the bases. The next batter grounded to second, scoring a run, but the Braves got their first out of the inning. Two more outs to go for the championship. But then the Royals pushed another run across the plate, making the score 7-6. With two outs and the next hitter in a 0-2 hole, Cruz hurled a nasty slider that hit the dirt and scooted past catcher Jeff Ho. The runner on third raced home, tying the game. The Royals dugout was fired up and yelling. And then, unbelievably, it happened again — another Cruz pitch hit the dirt, getting past Ho — and the go-ahead run for the Royals crossed the plate. It was a close play at home and Cruz thought that he tagged the runner out. Passions were running high and the Royals were celebrating. The Braves finally got their third out, but there was tension in the dugout between innings. Gloves were thrown, voices were raised. The momentum seemed to have done a complete 180 and suddenly the Royals seemed not only back in the game, but on the verge of taking a leg up in the series. How would the Braves respond?

In the bottom half of the inning, the Braves’ third baseman Mike Shea led off with a brilliant at-bat, drawing a walk. After the next batter went down on strikes, Mark Hughel followed with his own brilliant at bat, working a full count and fighting off a knuckler for a base hit to right. With runners on first and second and one out, first baseman and 2016 All Star Jeff Cobelli stepped to the plate. Although the Royals pitching staff had pitched very well all day, they seemed to struggle with lefties. Cobelli, for example, had three walks on the day. The first pitch from Boniello was another ball and the Braves realized a walk would load the bases for the Pezzuto brothers. Their chances were looking brighter. But the next pitch to Cobelli was a nasty fastball and Cobelli swung right through it. Maybe they had finally figured him out. The next pitch, another fastball, was low, and Cobelli popped it up to deep right center. It drifted. The Braves all stood up, watching it sail. As a team, the Braves emerged from the dugout, watching Cobelli’s shot sail, sail, sail…into the parking lot for a walk-off 3-run home run. The Braves captured their second championship in dramatic fashion! Braves 10, Royals 8.

The Braves’ 2016 season saw crucial contributions from every player on the roster. A special shout out here goes to catcher Jeff Ho, who caught multiple double headers — some in intense heat, including the championship — and he worked so well with the Braves pitchers. He has been a key factor in the success of Wolin and Cruz over the past two years.