Blackbirds go down swinging

BINGHAMTON –– Jared Paigo sat in the dugout as a medic tried to stop the blood leaking from the top of his head. He was angry.

Voorheesville had two runners on the bases with two outs in the seventh inning, desperate for a run that would tie the game.

It was Paigo’s turn to bat, and he is one of Voorheesville’s best, but he was unable. Alex Minnick came off the bench, took a few practice swings, and made his way to the batter’s box to face Geneseo’s pitching ace, Ben Kelly, who came into last Saturday’s Class C state semifinal with an 0.09 ERA.

“I was confident that Alex could hit the ball, but I was very upset,” Paigo, Voorheesville’s catcher, said this week. “I would have gotten the ball in play, somewhere, but my opportunity was ruined. I watched Alex, but my season was already over.”

Minnick, a sophomore, played a lot during the beginning of the season, but hadn’t seen much time in the last month. Kelly’s first-pitch fastball blew by Minnick’s swinging bat as Mike Young and Kristian Singh stole third base and second. All Minnick needed was some contact, but he missed another fastball for strike two.

Minnick gave all his strength on swing number three as the fastball flew under his bat for the final out. Kelly’s Blue Devil teammates rushed the mound, celebrating a hard earned 2-to-1 victory. Minnick expressed equal amounts of frustration 

and sadness as Young, the teammate he couldn’t bring home, walked over to him for some much needed support.

“I have confidence in Alex, but I feel bad for him,” Voorheesville Head Coach Kyle Turski said after the loss. The Blackbirds lost a state semifinal to Haldane in 2012. “Pinch-hitting on such short notice is hard to do,” he said. “Also, it tells you how bad Jared’s cut was because that kid is a gamer.”

How was he hurt so badly?

Geneseo had threatened to pad its lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, but Nico Church made a perfect throw from center field to gun down Trevor Mothersell, who was a sitting duck as Paigo waited to tag him at home plate. Instead of sliding, and to the shock of many at the Broome Community College ballpark in Binghamton, Mothersell tried to hurdle over Paigo.

Mothersell’s cleat landed on the top of Paigo’s head. Mothersell was called out to end the inning, and Paigo slammed his catcher’s glove to ground and felt his head for blood. Turski quickly came out of the dugout to argue as Voorheesville fans screamed for Mothersell to be tossed from the game. Mothersell, who was honored for a Sportsmanship Award before the game, was disqualified for endangering the welfare of another player.

“He put me at serious risk, and himself,” said Paigo, who didn’t need stitches, but mentioned that his head still hurt a little this week. “It was a weird, stupid play, but I’d like to think that it wasn’t intentional. He was out by a mile.”

High school baseball players are supposed to avoid contact at all costs during a game. Mothersell was forced to miss the Class C Championship game, and Geneseo lost to Seton Catholic, 9 to 0.

“Everybody knows that,” Turski said of avoiding contact. “Jared was standing right there, straight up, so there was no way that kid was going to get around him. The right thing to do there is to just give yourself up, or slide, instead of trying something dumb.”

Turski told The Enterprise that he would never let any of his players be taken advantage of, bullied, or put in a situation like Paigo’s last Saturday. Turski wouldn’t comment on Voorheesville having a better chance at getting a hit with Paigo batting instead of Minnick.

“You can’t pre-determine that, but Paigo’s been swinging a hot bat, and he made solid contact today,” said Turski after the game. “But, like I always say, that’s baseball –– it can be crappy.”

The Blackbirds would have come out on top in a three-, five-, or seven-game series against Geneseo, Turski said. “It is what it is,” he added. “That’s the thing about one game and done –– you have a couple bad at bats, a couple bad bounces, and it just doesn’t go your way.”

Pitchers’ battle

Kelly, who threw a tantalizing curveball, had seven strikeouts against Voorheesville, but Turski and his players said it wasn’t the best pitching the Birds have seen this season. In the middle of Saturday’s game, Turski said, “We’ve seen a better pitcher from Cobleskill.”

“He did a good job of mixing his pitches, being unpredictable,” said senior Ryan Clayton, who started in left field for Voorheesville, but didn’t bat against Kelly. “He was definitely hittable, but, when you hit your spots and pitch like that, it’s going to be really difficult for someone to get a hit.”

Church, the Birds’ best hitter, struck out to lead off the game. Then, Kelly walked David Cardona, and then got Young, Voorheesville’s second best hitter, to pop out. Singh and Nick Chiseri reached base with hits, and Cardona scored for the Blackbirds’ only run of the day in the first inning.

Voorheesville put the ball in play over the next six innings, but Geneseo’s defense was routinely in front of the ball to make outs. Singh reached third base in the fifth inning, but senior Kyle Nichols couldn’t bring him home. Kelly had control of the game, even when it seemed like he didn’t.

“I don’t know if it got tougher as time went on, but we had some good swings,” Turski said. “We hit balls at them, and they made some plays in the field that I thought, honestly, I don’t know how they made.”

“When push comes to shove”

Geneseo’s defense looked shaky at times. In the second inning, first baseman Devin Welch had an awful error, unable to secure an easy throw. In the third inning, the Blue Devils’ shortstop and second baseman nearly collided on a grounder by Singh. And, in the fifth inning, Singh hit a grounder that bounced right off the second baseman’s glove.

“When push comes to shove, they made the plays, and that’s all you can do,” Turski said of Geneseo, a team that had never been to the state tournament before. “I don’t want to take any credit away from them. They won the game, fair and square.”

Well, except for Mothersell’s leap at home plate, which took Paigo out of the game. He was a key player needed in a key moment, but he never got his chance to save Voorheesville’s season.

“I feel nauseous,” Church said quietly after the game.

Geneseo got two runs in the third inning off an infield hit by Kelly and a sacrifice fly to left field by Grangier Flint. Tony Belfiore was able to reach first base at the beginning of the inning after Paigo threw wide, missing Kyle Nichols’s glove. Then, Ryan Lagrou was safe on a slow roller to shortstop.

The Blue Devils didn’t need much to score two runs, but that’s all it would take to get past the Blackbirds, who struggled to find its hitting grove.

“We didn’t hit,” Young said. “It wasn’t our day today. It’s all right, though. What are we supposed to do? We already won six straight games to get here.”

Voorheesville was one of four teams –– Baldwinsville, Fort Ann, and Pine Valley are the others –– to return to the state tournament from 2012; twenty teams from Class AA, A, B, C, and D make the trip to Binghamton every year. The Blackbirds tasted both sectional and regional championships for the first time in program history in 2012, and then was talented enough to win those titles again in 2013.

“It’s so hard to repeat; it’s the hardest thing to do in sports, and we did it,” said Turski. “If you told me, for the rest of my coaching career, that I would come back to the state semifinals with my team, I would take that in a heartbeat.”

Impressive heart

Of course, the Birds would love to play in a state championship game, and be a state champion. But, there are baseball teams that have never won even a sectional title.

“Back to back, that’s awesome,” Young said. “Two regional titles, that’s awesome, too. We can’t ask for much more, and I’ve never had as much fun as this, and that’s all that matters. I loved every minute of it.”

Turski has played and coached baseball for 25 years, and said he’s never felt so much from a team before. “The heart and determination that they’ve shown,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive, and it says a lot about the kids on this team.”

Voorheesville is a baseball team to be reckoned with, and 13 players from 2013 should be back for 2014.

Turski’s father, Larry, who scores every Voorheesville game, assured his son that the Birds would be back in the state tournament when sectionals started this year.

“Last year went by in a flash, a blur, so this time my father kept reminding me, ‘Enjoy it, enjoy it,’ because you never know if it’s going to end,” said Turski. “He told me to enjoy it with the kids, enjoy it, and we did, and we have, and the best part is that 11 of these kids are coming with me to play travel baseball tomorrow.”

There is no rest for the Blackbirds, and, after Saturday’s loss, Turski said that Paigo wanted to play for his travel team the next day, despite his head injury.

Voorheesville lives, breathes, and sleeps baseball. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re meeting in the Hannaford parking lot tomorrow,” said Turski, “and we’re off to the races, again.”

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