The Polo Park Middle School Stallions and the Atlanta Braves have a little bit in common. They are both champions of their own baseball worlds. On Thursday, Nov. 4, the Stallions captured the Palm Beach County middle school baseball championship, defeating the Christa McAuliffe Middle School Challengers 2-0.
The Stallions-Challengers game was dominated by great pitching and defense by both teams. However, the Stallions had timely hitting, which was the difference.
On the mound for the Stallions was eighth grader Tyler Johnson. His counterpart for the Challengers was Chase Bureau. Both pitchers had strong outings, as Johnson struck out five, scattered three hits and allowed no walks. Bureau struck out one, gave up five hits and issued four walks in the four innings he pitched.
One of those walks by Bureau was costly. In the bottom of the first, Polo Park’s leadoff hitter Peyton Holton drew a walk. After getting the free pass to first, Holton stole second and third. He was then driven home on a two-out double by Johnson. That run was all that Johnson needed to record his fourth win on the season. All four of Johnson’s wins were shutouts.
Johnson was on point and virtually unstoppable during the entire game, as he threw just 79 pitches, 57 of them for strikes.
“He’s our go-to pitcher in big games,” said Polo Park coach Craig Kaliser, who also coached the team to its last middle school baseball title back in 2008. “Tyler has a great temperament. He always remains cool and composed. He always comes back with a big pitch to get the next out.”
But Kaliser emphasized that Polo Park is not a one-person team.
“We are blessed to have a wealth of pitching this year,” Kaliser said. “Today’s catcher, Santiago Baptista, had a great outing on the mound in our semifinal win against Wellington Landings. My third baseman, Daniel Hennessey, is also a good pitcher.”
In addition to the first-inning run, the Stallions added an insurance run later in the game. After Polo Park’s Beckett Englert led off the bottom of the fifth with a single off Christa McAuliffe’s new pitcher Caleb Smith, Englert was replaced by pinch runner Cole Vatterott, who advanced to second on a balk. Vatterott was then driven home on a single to center by teammate Tanner Gilman. Vatterott easily beat the throw home, but he slid head-first across home plate to leave no doubt. With the front of his jersey now dirty from the slide, Vatterott jumped for joy.
On only one occasion did the Challengers mount any kind of threat in the game. With one out in the fourth, Christa McAuliffe’s Byron White and Owen Dever had back-to-back singles, which put runners at first and third. Johnson promptly retired Van Kamen on an infield pop-up to third, and then forced Guy Chityat to ground out to second to end the inning.
The last out of the game by the Challengers was in the top of the sixth inning when Kamen hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield, in the direction of Stallions’ second baseman and co-captain Holton, who scooped up the ball and threw out Kamen at first.
“I was just focused on making the play and then celebrating,” Holton said later.
Then he, his teammates, their coaches and many of the 400 fans in attendance began celebrating the Stallions’ win.
Fellow Stallions co-captain Baptista felt good vibes from the outset of the game.
“I was fired up today,” Baptista said. “Everybody was making plays in the game, and it all started with Tanner [Gilman]’s diving catch in center field to end the first inning.”
In the end, Polo Park and Christa McAuliffe finished with identical 12-1 records. To grab the title, the Polo Park Stallions simply did what their coaches told them they had to do to win the game.
“Our motto is throw strikes, play good defense, and we run,” Kaliser said. “In this game, we did just that.”
And just like the Atlanta Braves, the Polo Park Middle School baseball team won a championship.