Bay Ridge's Poly Prep One Win Away From State-Title Three-Peat
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
"Seven more innings!" was the rallying cry of the Poly Prep Blue Devils moments after they survived an epic pitchers' duel with a scintillating 2-0 victory over previously unbeaten Berkeley Carroll in Tuesday afternoon's New York State Independent Schools State semifinals at Columbia's Roberston Field.
Truth be told, the all-Brooklyn matchup for the ages came a game too soon, but carried all the intensity and nerve-wracking drama of a heavyweight title showdown.
In one dugout, the top-seeded Lions of Park Slope, anchored by junior staff ace Ian Miller.
In the other, the two-time defending state champion Blue Devils of Bay Ridge, armed with fire-balling right-hander Andrew Zapata.
Due to the NYSAISS seeding system, which Poly Prep coach Matt Roventini openly called "short-sighted" last week, BCS and Poly -- the No. 4 seed -- were matched up in the prestigious annual tournament's semifinal round, rather than Wednesday's championship tilt, which will now pair the Blue Devils against No. 2 Fieldston at Manhattanville College.
The marquee matchup meant that UConn-bound Zapata, who had toed the rubber in the state title game for Poly each of the previous two years, would have to concede that privilege to one of his rotation mates.
Roventini indicated following Tuesday's win that senior Phil Maldari would take the ball for Wednesday's ultimate game against the Blue Devils' top Ivy League rival, confirming that he had to use Zapata against the No. 1 Lions.
"They're 20 something and O, We couldn't take a chance with them," Roventini told the Eagle. "We made the right decision putting Andrew on the mound. He did the job he had to do."
In his final start for the Country Day School, Zapata yielded only one hit, struck out seven and fought his way into and out of trouble during a potentially calamitous sixth inning thanks to a sparkling defensive play by junior center fielder Morgan Gray, who tossed a no-hitter in Poly's first-round victory over fifth-seeded Rye on Monday.
"He was getting tired. He was standing up and he knew it," Roventini said after paying his senior right-hander a visit on the mound in the sixth. "The kid's gonna battle. He had that look in his eye. Every big game we needed to win, he's won for us."
Miller, who will be back for another run at the state title in 2014, was every bit as tough and determined on the hill for BCS. The third-year hurler, who didn't permit an earned run all season, was victimized by a pair of fielding mishaps in the fourth inning, resulting in the only runs of the game.
Other than that, Miller struck out six, fired 15 first-pitch strikes and went the distance around four hits for yet another complete-game gem to cap a season of outstanding efforts that has drawn the interest of several Division I recruiters.
"Those two pitchers put on a show today," said BCS coach Walter Paller, whose team beat Poly on the very same field for the school's first, and thus far only, state championship back in 2009. "People who don't know baseball think this is a boring game. It was a riveting game. Every pitch meant so much."
Miller had shut Poly down, 1-0, just over a month ago in Bay Ridge, edging Maldari in yet another classic pitching matchup and building even more excitement for his mano-a-mano with Zapata.
"To tell you how much respect we have for both of these pitchers, we were worried this game had a chance to go 15, 16 innings with low pitch-counts. We could've played until dark," added Paller after watching his Lions fall just shy of what could have been a perfect 22-0 campaign. "If we didn't make a few critical (defensive) mistakes, we could still be playing. But those things happen in the heat of the moment."
The Lions (20-1) finally appeared to be in position to break through against Zapata in the fateful sixth inning.
Seniors Robert Graham and Amherst-bound Anthony Spina put together disciplined at-bats against Poly's tiring ace to draw back-to-back walks with one out. BCS catcher Yanai Feldman followed with a screaming line drive into right center-field that had game-tying two-run double written all over it.
But Gray scrambled into the gap, slid down on one knee and fought through a bright sun to snare the ball just before it hit the turf, sending both runners dashing back to their respective bases.
"Your best players have to make big plays in big games," Roventini said of Gray's clutch grab. "Yesterday he throws a no-hitter. You saw him going out and making a big play in the outfield today."
Miller stepped to the plate next and made solid contact, lining out to shortstop as the Lions' best shot at pulling even ended.
"If one of those balls finds a gap, we're still playing," Paller lamented. "That's just baseball."
After walking a pair in the top of the seventh, Miller finished off his campaign by inducing a perfectly executed 6-4-3 double play ball. That left the Lions down to their last three outs of an otherwise historic season.
Buoyed by the prospect of launching his team into Wednesday's final, Zapata saved his best for last, working a 1-2-3 ninth to set off a mild, but well-deserved celebration by the Blue Devils.
"Matt deserves everything he gets. He's an excellent coach," Paller said with a tip of his cap to his coaching adversary. "I never feel bad when Matt wins, except, of course, when it's against us."
Though BCS fell just shy of its ultimate goal, the Lions have plenty to be proud of after taking down every opponent they faced during one of the greatest seasons in school history.
Paller made sure his players left Roberston Field with heads held high and chests out.
"The body of work from when we arrived back from Florida [spring training] to today speaks volumes in terms of where we rank among the best teams in the city," Paller said. "My wish, and I know Matt wishes the same thing, is that the NYSAISS Tournament be a double-elimination, at least after the first round. I still look at us as having accomplished as much as any team we've had here at Berkeley Carroll."
Roventini was quick to remind his dynastic unit that the job wasn't done.
Citing that, "Seven more innings!", with Maldari on the hill Wednesday, woud make Poly the first team ever to grab three straight NYSAISS crowns.
"Phil's a senior. He's done it for us a lot. Now, it's his turn," the coach said.
Check back here Thursday for a recap of Poly's NYSAISS Tournament final showdown with Fieldston