MANALAPAN - Tournament settings have not been kind to the Manalapan baseball team this season and Tuesday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV semifinal against third-seeded East Brunswick looked like a recurring nightmare for the No. 2 Braves over the first four-and-a-half innings.

With senior E.J. Melendez on the mound, however, and a lineup full of his classmates playing to extend their 20-plus win final season, the Braves refused to let a few setbacks keep them out of the program's first sectional final in six years.

Melendez overcame four errors behind him and senior Anthony Naylor came through with the hit that scored the tying and go-ahead runs after a mishap of his own as Manalapan battled past the Bears, 5-2, to earn a trip to play top-seeded and two-time defending Group IV champion Hunterdon Central on Friday.

"You really do feel the pressure in these games, but the key is to focus in," Naylor said. "That's all you can really do. You don't think about what happened before, you just focus on what you have to do right now."

Manalapan senior E.J. Melendez. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Over the first four defensive innings, Manalapan committed four errors and in the bottom of the third, Naylor popped up a bunt with runner's on first and second and none out that resulted in a rally-killing double play. Junior second baseman Billy Watters singled to center field one batter later.

In the top of the fifth, Melendez issued a leadoff walk - one of just two for the game for the senior right-hander - that came around to score on an infield single with two out. East Brunswick catcher Mike Sutton beat out a slow ground ball to shortstop to allow the go-ahead run to score and put East Brunswick ahead, 2-1.

In the bottom of the fifth, Naylor got his chance to redeem himself for his failed bunt attempt. With runners on first and second and one out, the senior right fielder flipped a single into the right-center field gap that scored senior Nick DiMiceli from second base and sent senior Dan DeBlasio to third. When the throw from the outfield got away from the cutoff man, without hesitation, DeBlasio sprinted to the plate with the go-ahead run.

"I didn't get the bunt down in the previous at-bat, so I knew I had to pick myself up," Naylor said. "I knew it was a big spot. I knew I had to hit something hard in the gap to try to get two runs on the board and take the lead and it worked out."

Melendez then retired the first two batters of the sixth inning before issuing his second walk of his outing on his 93rd pitch. Coach Brian Boyce came out of the dugout to get his senior starter and handed the ball to senior Ryan Crehan, who walked his first and only batter.

Melendez struck out seven and limited East Brunswick to five hits - two infield singles, two modestly-struck ground balls up the middle and one clean line drive to right field. He featured a heavy dose of breaking balls, mostly leaning on his curveball while mixing in the occasional slider.

"I always throw my breaking ball a lot," Melendez said. "I don't worry about the hitters picking it up because I can throw two different breaking balls. If they are on the curveball, I can throw the slider and I can always go back to the fastball to keep them off of it too."

"There are times when he is not getting the breaking ball over, which is when he gets into trouble with walks," Boyce said of Melendez. "He's got a good fastball too and when he can locate his breaking pitches like he did today, it really helps the fastball play even better. He was pretty good today - keeping guys off balance and working both sides of the plate in the zone."

Senior left-hander Anthony Jomo came in for Crehan in the sixth walked the bases loaded before inducing an inning-ending pop-up in foul territory on the first-base side to end the threat while preserving the one-run lead.

The Braves gave their bullpen a pair of insurance runs in the sixth on RBI singles by DiMiceli and senior Rob Gargano. Senior Giovanni Ciaccio started the rally with a two-out walk, stole second base and moved to third when the throw from Sutton skipped into center field.

Ciaccio also set the tone at the plate against East Brunswick starter Mike Falco, who pitched a five-inning perfect game with 10 strikeouts in Thursday's 10-0 sectional quarterfinal win over Freehold Township. Ciaccio fell behind 0-2 and battled back to earn an 11-pitch walk. He then came around to score from second on an RBI single by DeBlasio through the hole on the left side.

"That's the kind of player he has been for us all year," said Boyce of Ciaccio, who is hitting .395 with 17 extra-base hits and 35 runs scored this year. "He sets the tone for us, not just at the plate but as a leader in the dugout and in center field. He's the guy that everyone feeds off of."

Manalapan surrendered a first-inning run when the first two batters of the game reached on errors by sophomore third baseman Nick DiPietrantonio, moved up on a sacrifice bunt and the first among them - right fielder Brad Edwards - scored on a ground out. DiPietrantonio handled his one other chance later in the game and drew a walk in his first plate appearance.

"I don't let that stuff get to me," Melendez said of the defensive miscues. "My job is to make pitches. I can't control what goes on behind me. The defense is there to pick me up and I've got to make my pitches."

For the Braves to win their first sectional championship since repeating as Group IV champions in 2012, they will have to overcome a Hunterdon Central team that has won the last two Group IV titles and boasts a dominant duo at the top of its rotation. Junior left-hander and Old Dominion commit Joey DeChiaro threw just 62 pitches in five innings Tuesday against Old Bridge and is available to throw up to 88 on Friday.

That won't be necessary if 6-foot-7 senior and University of Kentucky commit Alex Degen is on his game. In his last start, Degen struck out 14 in seven complete innings in a win over North Brunswick.

Last year, Hunterdon Central beat Manalapan in the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals and did not use DeChiaro nor Degen in the 6-1 victory in Manalapan.

 

"Hunterdon Central knocked us out last year so we were hoping for them (to win)," Naylor said. "They are not a team to play around with. They have a lot of returning starters and so do we. We've got to bring our A-game."

On the other side, Manalapan will give Hunterdon Central a different look as well, with junior left-hander Ben Levine lined up to start. Levine has emerged as a complement to Melendez, sporting a 6-1 record with a 1.46 ERA, 40 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 43 innings.

Manalapan's season has featured two losses to Christian Brothers Academy that effectively took them out of the running for a Class A North championship, a round-of-16 loss to St. Rose in the Monmouth County Tournament and a round-of-16 loss to Freehold Township in the Shore Conference Tournament. Friday will mark an opportunity for this senior class at Manalapan to go out with a championship to its credit and doing so against a two-time defending champion would only enhance the achievement.

"We have a core and a nucleus of big-game players who go out and compete every game," Boyce said. "When our intensity is there, we are in games and I would expect that intensity to be there playing for a championship."

 

Box Score

Manalapan 5, East Brunswick 2

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
East Brunswick (18-8) 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 2 6 1
Manalapan (22-6) 1 0 0 0 2 2 X 5 8 4

Pitching

East Brunswick IP H R ER BB SO PC
Mike Falco (L) 5 6 3 2 3 3 89
James Schuld 1 2 2 2 1 3 24
Manalapan IP H R ER BB SO PC
E.J. Melendez (W, 6-1) 5.2 5 2 1 2 7 93
Ryan Crehan 0 0 0 0 1 0 5
Anthony Jomo 0.1 0 0 0 2 0 13
Aaron Ayers (S, 2) 1 1 0 0 0 2 13

Top Hitters

East Brunswick Stats
Mike Sutton 2-4, RBI
Brad Edwards 2-4, R
Kevin Schuster 1-2, BB
Manalapan Stats
Rob Gargano 2-4, RBI
Dan DeBlasio 2-2, 2 HBP, R, RBI
Nick DiMiceli 2-4, 2 R, RBI
Anthony Naylor 1-4, RBI
Giovanni Ciaccio 0-1, 3 BB, 2 R, SB

 

 

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