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Kuzniak leads Scorps to title
The five empty bottles of bubbly strewn across the field were a far cry from the champagne and cigar smoke-filled clubhouses of the big leagues, but it was a championship nonetheless.
On Sunday, the Yuma Scorpions pulled off a 5-3 victory over Team Canada to wrap up its third Arizona Winter League title in the AWL's five-year history.
Fittingly, the winning pitcher was native Yuman James Kuzniak, who tossed 2 2/3 innings of scoreless ball.
Kuzniak graduated from Cibola High in 2003 before moving on to Arizona Western College, where he now serves as an assistant baseball coach. Consider he's also a teacher at nearby Crane Middle School, and Kuzniak is a Yuman through and through.
No wonder why he took some extra pride in his wearing those four letters across his chest.
“It's all about Yuma for me,” he said.
Like Kuzniak, Yuma coach Darryl Brinkley said the key to his team's title run was the absence of a me-first mentality.
“I don't know even know what anybody's (batting) average was or ERA or none of that stuff,” Brinkley said. “My big thing was, ‘Guys, it's a team. Do whatever you can do to help win the game.'”
Kuzniak entered the game with one out in the third inning and his team locked in a 2-2 tie.
After giving up a single to Patrick Brooks, the first batter he faced, the left-handed Kuzniak nearly picked him off at first base. But while Brooks got in a rundown, Team Canada's Jesse Brown alertly broke for home from third base, sliding in safely after catcher Michael McGuckin dropped a good throw. But Team Canada would not score again.
In all, Kuzniak allowed four hits while striking out a batter and walking none.
“I was just going out there trying to pound the zone early in the count,” Kuzniak said. “I tried to mix it up and throw sliders first pitch just to keep them off balance, you know? I'm pretty confident in what I can do, I was just aggressive.”
Yuma jumped out to an early 2-0 lead after the first inning, taking advantage of some sloppy Team Canada defense in the process. With runners on the corners and no out, Yuma's Nicholas Neagele hit a chopper to the right side of the mound and it was misplayed by a trio of infielders, allowing Kohei Katsuno to score from third. Yuma doubled its lead on the next at-bat with an RBI groundout from third baseman Pablo Garcia.
After falling behind 3-2 in top of the third, Yuma answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead for good. Garcia started things off with an RBI single, before Jason Jebbia and McGuckin delivered back-to-back triples to right field, bringing the game to its final margin.
Just like they had done all season, the Scorpions won because of good pitching on Sunday. Team Canada entered the championship a day after posting a 19-2 victory over the Saskatchewan Silver Sox. In fact, Team Canada outhit the Scorpions 10-4 on Sunday, but nine of those were singles.
“It was just a matter of getting those hits with runners in scoring position,” Team Canada manager Morgan Burkhart said. “We fell a little short and that's the ballgame right there.”
The 18-year-old Japanese “Knuckleball Princess” Eri Yoshida didn't pitch on Sunday, but she did receive a faux marriage proposal following the game. Shortly after receiving his championship ring, McGuckin got on one knee and proposed to Yoshida. Apparently, the gesture was lost in translation.
“‘Thank you?,'” McGuckin said. “You're supposed to say yes.”