Bat Rays have big sting

It's a lineup Robert Della Grotta never would've wanted to face as a pitcher.

On the Newport Beach Bat Rays under-12 club baseball team Della Grotta manages, there is no lock of explosiveness.

The Bat Rays sting the ball. Period. Especially for a team of 12-year-olds.

"My starting lineup for Cooperstown that I'm going to bring out, one through 10 can all hit the ball over the fence," Della Grotta said. "That's a good option to have as a coach, that every guy in your lineup can hit the ball 250 feet-plus. And some guys can hit it 300-plus."

The squad, composed primarily of players from Newport Beach Little League and Newport Harbor Baseball Assn., is ready to unleash its power on teams from all over the country. Next week the Bat Rays will travel to the Cooperstown Dreams Park in Cooperstown, N.Y., to play in the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Invitational Tournament from Aug. 20-26.

It's the third straight year the Bat Rays, which were founded in 2004, are sending a team to the city where the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is located. The previous two years the teams battled in Cooperstown, getting to the final 32. Della Grotta said he has higher goals for this team.

"I think the goal for this team is to win the whole thing," said Della Grotta, 26, who grew up in Newport Beach and pitched at Mater Dei High, Pepperdine, and for two years as a minor leaguer in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. "I'm going in to bring some hardware home."

Newport Beach Little League has never won a District 55 title at any level. But some of the top players from that league — including Brandon Cargile, Kevin Cox, Ryan Burgoyne, Chase Dugan, Nick Goddard, Billy Hardesty and Cole Dandeneau — are helping to change any negative perceptions with this Bat Rays team. The team also has players from Newport Harbor Baseball Assn., Mason Lindh and Spencer Neal. Lindh was on the NHBA team that recently advanced to the Pony Bronco Super Regional tournament.

Andres Hernandez, Jacob Collins, Marco Martinez and Irvine's Matt Moline are the other players on the Bat Rays squad. Moline is one of the team's top home-run hitters and has batted nearly .800 this summer, said Chuck Cargile, one of two assistant coaches along with Tom Neal.

"It's really great," Lindh, an outfielder, said of playing with the Bat Rays. "I'm really grateful that our team is going there, and I'm just happy that I'll be with all my friends. It'll be a fun time, and hopefully we'll do well. I think we'll go pretty far.

"We do very well in tournaments. We're competitive, but fun. Everybody thinks of us as, 'Newport, oh they're not that good,' but then we just show them that we're better than them."

The team has been successful so far this summer, with a 5-2 record. Newport Beach advanced to the championship game of the United States Specialty Sports Assn. Surf and Turf tournament in San Clemente on Sunday.

The Bat Rays aren't just bat. Della Grotta said nearly his whole team can pitch, with Burgoyne, Neal and Collins as the top arms. That will help the Bat Rays due to the tournament format.

At least seven games are guaranteed. Chuck Cargile said beginning Aug. 21, the team will play doubleheaders for three straight days. That will help seed the teams when they begin a single-elimination bracket play on Aug. 24.

The tournament, which will begin with around 100 teams, will be down to the final 16 teams by Aug. 25. Della Grotta said his understanding is that no Newport Beach team has ever made it to the final 16 in Cooperstown. That's the Bat Rays' first goal, he said.

When Della Grotta was growing up in Newport Beach, the Bat Rays weren't around yet. He said he had to go to Mission Viejo or Tustin to play club baseball. His team is certainly making the most of its opportunity.

"Most of the time for the past couple of years, you come to these tournaments and they're like, 'Oh, Newport Beach, we're just going to roll these guys,'" Della Grotta said. "Then they see us pull up and every guy's above 5-9, and we just blow by everyone. Our last tournament, going into the championship game we had scored the most runs in the whole tournament. Now Newport, we put some fear into people."

Dugan is the team's speedster, but he's coming back from a broken arm. If nothing else, the Bat Rays plan to use him as a designated runner.

That might be OK for Newport Beach. The Bat Rays have plenty of hitters and pitchers already.

"We have good coaches who train us well," said Dandeneau, who just turned 12 and is the Bat Rays' center fielder. "Our team's pretty good and we're good friends. We play really well together and we just try our hardest. I just want to give 110% and help our team win."

Hardesty, a second baseman, said he's looking forward to the offensive fireworks.

"We have a lot of good players from both sides of the bay," Hardesty said. "I think we can get into the highest rounds of Cooperstown. I think we'll have five or six home runs a game."

Yep, a pitcher's worst nightmare.

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