Baseball – After a Season of Detours, Groome and Barnegat Nearing Destination
The 2016 season has not gone according to the script that Jason Groome or any of those around him and supporting him would have drawn up in an ideal world.
There was the ineligibility ruling on April 14 that kept him out for 19 days, the loss to Toms River North in which he allowed seven runs (four earned) and the first home run ever hit against him at the high school level, and a sub-.500 season for his Barnegat team - which was bounced in the first round of the Shore Conference Tournament and finished eight games out of first place in the Class B South division.
All the while, Groome went from opening the season as a consensus No. 1 player available in the upcoming MLB First Year Player Draft that could end up being the first round pick of the hometown Phliadelphia Phillies, to reportedly falling off the Phillies short list of potential picks - although that appears to have more to do with financial considerations and the inherent added risk that comes with draft a high school pitcher.
Despite all the road blocks, however, Groome and his Barnegat squad still find themselves in position to end the season exactly how they planned, all thanks to an all-around team performance on Monday against Middle Township in the opening round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II tournament.
The Bengals scrounged up enough offense to take down Middle, 4-0, as senior Jared Kacso pitched four one-hit innings, followed by three more one-hit innings by Groome in relief. The scenario was an uneasy one for Barnegat - which lost to No. 25 seed St. John Vianney as the No. 8 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament with Kacso on the mound just five days earlier - but its two standout pitchers delivered and got the Bengals to a date with top-seeded West Deptford Thursday at 6 p.m.
"I'm enjoying (the season), but I came back here to win a state title," Groome said. "That was really the only thing on my mind from the beginning of the season. Winning the (Ocean County Tournament) and the SCT would have been pretty cool, but nothing compares to a state championship."
After throwing three innings on Monday, Groome is eligible for seven innings on Thursday against the 20-5 Eagles. In his last full outing, Groome dominated Gloucester Catholic - the No. 1 team in the NJ.com Top 20 - but lost the game, 1-0, thanks to an unearned run and a dominant performance by Rams ace and Florida State recruit Tyler Mondile.
"I'm going to run (Tuesday) and long toss on Wednesday and I'll be ready to go against West Deptford on Thursday," Groome said after striking out seven in his three-inning relief outing on Monday.
Groome returned to Barnegat from IMG Academy in Florida for his senior season with the expressed purpose of leading his team to a state championship, which slipped through its grasp during Groome's sophomore year in 2014. The Bengals reached the sectional final that year, but lost to Buena, 1-0, with Groome on the mound on a passed ball in the seventh inning.
"The path this time is very similar to our path two years ago," Barnegat coach Dan McCoy said. "We ended up staying with our rotation and he ended up pitching the sectional final that year. This year, we have Jay for seven (on Thursday) and potentially seven in the semifinals, depending on what we think of the matchups."
From this point in the tournament on, McCoy will have to make one more decision with his ace should the Bengals prevail on Thursday. With the sectional semifinals scheduled for Tuesday and the finals for Friday, June 3, Groome would be eligible to pitch on Tuesday with four days of rest in between, but his availability on Friday would then depend on how much he pitched in that game.
If McCoy stayed on schedule and pitched Kacso on Tuesday with Groome in relief for three innings, Groome would then be eligible to pitch in any of Barnegat's remaining innings, assuming the weather holds up and there are no extra inning games.
"Jared can go out and beat anybody and Jared will have to go out and beat somebody at some point," McCoy said. "He's done it already on multiple occasions and we have all the confidence in the world in him. Our only problem has been scoring runs. Four runs takes us a month sometimes."
The only obstruction to using Groome at his maximum eligibility would be pushback from Groome's handlers, including adviser Jeff Randazzo, who have worked with McCoy this season to manage Groome's use. McCoy, however, has insisted that after the Gloucester Catholic game on May 16, he has free reign to use Groome as he and the senior left-hander see fit and within the limitations of the NJSIAA pitching rules. Those advisers asked McCoy not to use Groome as a hitter for the regular season but backed off the request for the stretch run. From this point on, Groome will bat fourth in Barnegat's lineup.
Groome could be available for the full 10 innings next week and potentially for two starts with three days of rest in between in the final week of the season, and his lack of workload this year might end up helping him in the long run. With two missed starts in the middle of the season due to the ineligibility ruling, a loss in the Ocean County Tournament semifinals and an early exit from the Shore Conference Tournament, Groome has ended up with a relatively light workload for a pitcher of his caliber who is now in late May of his final season.
"He hadn't really thrown since last Monday, so I think we were more concerned with getting him work than with saving his arm," McCoy said. "He'll be fine."
Including his two starts of the season that were officially wiped off the record, Groome has thrown 33 2/3 innings this season and has only pitched seven innings twice in his seven appearances. Those innings have indeed been dominant - even with the Toms River North start weighing them down - with Groome posting a 0.83 ERA with 13 hits and 11 walks allowed while striking out 78.
As far as his draft status goes, Groome remains the No. 1 player on board of several prospect experts and while it now appears a longshot that Groome will be the first ever player from N.J. taken with the No. 1 pick, he has been mentioned by some as a possibility to go No. 3 to Atlanta and is still considered a very likely top-10 pick.
"I know (the scouts) are all in their meetings right now, so I'm just coming out and trying to throw strikes and now walk anyone," Groome said. "I walked one (Monday) but overall, I felt like I've done pretty good."
Groome will concern himself with the Draft when he and his family make the trip up to MLB Network in Secaucus on June 9, but for now, his ultimate goal for his final season is within reach and the ball will be in his hands to make it happen.
"I remember sitting at my desk in November waiting for baseball season to come," Groome said. "Then it finally came and now it's almost gone.
"The other tournaments didn't play out like we hoped, but I came back here to win a state championship and we're on the road to doing that right now."