By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Mark Briscoe)
BETHESDA, MD — The game wasn’t over, but it sure seemed that way as the Alexandria Aces’ chances for a trip to the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League championship slowly slipped away.
The Aces trailed 4-0 with three innings left in their elimination playoff game Friday night against the Bethesda Big Train. The margin seemed a lot larger, though, as the Big Train dominated every aspect of the game.
But things began looking up for the Aces in the top of the seventh inning. Thanks to two hits, two wild pitches and two walks — which Aces broadcaster Lukas Favale later called “one of the strangest innings you’ve ever seen” — the team suddenly seemed poised to take the lead.
With the score 4-3, the home crowd in Bethesda went quiet. After all, the Big Train had won more championships than any team in the league, while the upstart Aces were coming off just their first winning season (27-17) in franchise history.
The Aces’ Nick Collins, who was second in the league with 30 RBIs, strode up to the plate. Collins played in 43 of the team’s 44 games and hit .313, but he was 8 for 14 in the playoffs, batting a torrid .571.
Collins’ father had driven hours the night before from his home in North Carolina to cheer on his son. Nick Collins fed on the encouragement and hit a double down the right-field line to tie the game, 4-4. The elder Collins slapped high-fives and traded hugs in the stands.
His son later advanced to third on a wild pitch. And then, with two outs, the Aces’ Nick Kranick watched a called strike before Bethesda hurler Zack Morris threw a pitch past the catcher.
Collins, who is 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, instantly took off, barreling toward home plate. He slid headfirst, his arms stretched to the plate in a cloud of dirt, as the tag brushed against his back.
But as the dust settled, the ump called Collins out. Head coach Dave DeSilva and the Alexandria fans in attendance erupted. They were livid.
The Big Train went on to score in the bottom of the eighth, sending the team to their third straight championship game. But Bethesda lost to the Baltimore Redbirds, who had beaten the Aces earlier in the day Friday.
Though the controversial play at home must have weighed on the Aces’ minds, coaches, players and team officials didn’t dwell on it. They talked instead about a historic season that saw the squad transform into a top contender, which can only help as the franchise begins recruiting players for next season.
“We built the team around pitching and defense, and that really showed up as the year went on,” DeSilva said as he shook hands and congratulated his players for the last time at Bethesda’s Shirley Povich Stadium. “You saw the teams with better pitching advance. We had a six-game winning streak, which was a first, and we won 27 games in the regular season, which was huge for the Aces. And so hopefully we can build upon that.”
During the regular season, the Aces ranked second in the league in hitting with a .283 batting average and third in pitching with a combined ERA of 3.01. The season also marked DeSilva’s first year as head coach.
“It’s not about me,” DeSilva said when asked how he’d gauge his first season. “It’s about the guys. I give all the credit to them. I’m just out here facilitating their development.”
The Aces have been around as a franchise for six years, and for three of those seasons, Colin Milon, of George Washington University, has been a member of the pitching staff.
“It’s the best team we’ve ever had here,” said Milon, who finished the regular season with a 2.19 ERA. “We were a fundamental ball club. We made plays. We had speed. The starting pitching was great all year, and we had one of the best bullpens in the league. And all around, we didn’t make very many mistakes.”
To be sure, next year’s team will look a lot different. Players like Milon will graduate and move on. Younger players like Nick Collins could return, or they might land elsewhere. That’s that nature of college summer league baseball, said Aces co-founder Pat Malone, who called this season the most successful for the franchise on and off the field.
Malone said more people started showing up this year, and for the first time, chants of “Let’s go, Aces” could be heard coming from the bleachers. And fans came from all parts of Alexandria and Arlington.
“It’s just tough to see it end so fast,” said Malone. “You see so many people and you never think two months can go by so fast, but they do.
“Summer ball is such that it’s always going to change. You see guys and they’re trying to go on and do as much as they can to be a part of baseball — guys like Kyle Zimmer, who got drafted by the Kansas City Royals. And then some guys may end up coaching somewhere.
“So I’d like to think the Aces, this year more than any other year, really made a mark in being a contributor to the future of the great game of baseball.”