SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — If there’s one team that’s become used to playing in championship games this year, it’s been the SPFBL 8u Raiders.

So, when the Raiders took the field in a winner-takes-all title game against Chatham Monday, they were entering familiar territory. Previously, the group had played in its spring league final, won a Memorial Day tournament, and was the runner up in its district tourney. 

And on Monday night, the Raiders’ play reflected their confidence and familiarity with the circumstances. 

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In the words that the coaches praised to a group of champions after the game, the Raiders saved their best performance of the season for the most important time and delivered a 7-1 victory to win the championship at Memorial Park. The team won over 20 during the season, which included a birth in the Cal Ripken State Tournament. 

Pitchers Sam Galante, James Masterson, and Simon Shapiro each threw two innings and combined to allow only one Chatham run on four total hits while walking just two batters collectively. Masterson struck out four hitters while Galante fanned three, and Shapiro K’d one, though it accounted for the most important out of the night. He sealed the championship by getting the final batter of the game to strike out swinging, also completing the Raiders’ first 1-2-3 inning. 

Each pitcher benefited from a stellar Raiders defense which did not commit an error, even on a notoriously tricky and fast infield. 

At the plate, Sean Sponheimer and Ryan McCann each had two hits, two RBI, and scored a run apiece, while Galante also drove in a pair of runs and scored. Aiden Luccarelli scored, had a hit, and knocked in a run, and Charlie Sacchetti also scored twice. Additionally, Brady Gelb reached safely in all of his plate appearances and stole a team-best two bases. 

The Raiders’ dominance in the field preserved the rewards from a four-run first inning, which kick started an offense that roped seven hits, drew six walks, and stole eight bases during the game. 

After Galante, Brian Byrne, and Sacchetti worked walks in that first to load the bases with one out, the table was set for Luccarelli, who didn’t miss his opportunity. He lined a 1-2 offering into left field for an RBI single, and that started the merry-go-round. Next batter Sean Sponheimer singled home two more runs, and Luccarelli came across on a productive groundout from McCann. 

Three innings later, Sponheimer and McCann would each single on grounders through the 3-4 hole to leadoff the fourth. With two outs, Galante drove them both home with a 2 RBI single to right. McCann later drove in the team’s final run of the night in the fifth, as his second base hit in as many innings brought home Sacchetti, who also singled. 

So much was going right for the Raiders that in the top of that fifth, when Chatham finally did score, SPF still benefited from it. The run scored on a groundout for the first out of the inning, and the Raiders would be back in the dugout within two batters. 

Getting The Important Outs

While at all levels of baseball, every batter in the lineup is to be taken seriously, the top of the order is typically reserved for a team’s top hitters — the table setters and RBI machines.  

On Monday, the Raiders’ success can largely be attributed to how they handled the opposition’s frontline offensive. Chatham’s 1-through-5 hitters were a collective 0-for-12 against Raiders pitching, and the first seven batters were 1-for-16. 

Furthermore, the Raiders retired the first batter in four of six innings and held opposing batters to an average of .181 against. 

Turning Point

For the first time all night, the Raiders were faced with a bit of a jam when Chatham’s first two batters in the fifth reached base to set up a 1st-and-3rd situation. SPF led 6-0 at the time, but that lead could’ve depreciated quickly. 

A run would inevitably score, but it came on a fielder’s choice groundout where the Raiders made the smart play and got the sure out instead of trying to make a spectacular play at home. That was the first of three consecutive fielder’s choices, allowing the Raiders to escape the once ominous jam with minimal damage. 

The Raiders added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, and won a championship moments later. 

Championship Roster

Coaches: John Sponheimer, Jay Shapiro, Chris Masterson

Players: Brian Byrne, Sam Galante, Brady Gelb, Parker Lorenzetti, Aiden Luccarelli, James Masterson, Ryan McCann, Charlie Sacchetti, Simon Shapiro, Sean Sponheimer