Baseball: Southern Spoils Ken Frank’s Bid for 800 Wins
TOMS RIVER - Everything was going according to plan for Toms River South in its bid to give head coach Ken Frank his 800th victory on Friday night before visiting Southern did its best Toms River South imitation to put history on hold.
The Rams rallied for four runs in the top of the seventh inning, highlighted by a two-out, three-run double by senior third baseman Nick Liantonio, to stun the Indians 4-3 in a Class A South game at Ken Frank Stadium. Toms River South (8-4, 6-4) will try again for Frank's milestone win on Saturday at 7 p.m. when it faces Bayonne at home in a nonconference game.
Frank's 600th win in 2005 and his 755th victory in 2012, which made him the state's all-time wins leader, both came at Southern's expense. A Rams team coached by one of his former players, John Natoli, made sure that becoming the first baseball coach in New Jersey history to reach 800 wins would have to require a loss in some other team's column. Southern produced the type of gritty comeback win that has been Toms River South's trademark over the years.
"This is probably our biggest win for the program, considering the setting and everything else,'' said Natoli, who is in his fifth season. "Coach Frank is my mentor. I learned the game from him. I learned how to do things the right way.
"I have nothing but the utmost respect for coach Frank because he really is a class act. His guys will go all out for him, and that kind of attitude and that kind of culture is what I'm trying to bring down here to Southern. I believe the culture has changed here because there is no let-up in our guys."
It's a measure of respect for the program Frank has constructed in his 36 seasons that even though it was a regular-season game, it was one the Rams (4-7, 2-7) won't soon forget.
"I could speak for all of us in saying this is the biggest win of our careers,'' Liantonio said.
The Rams knew what many who showed up at the game came to see, and it motivated them to their last out to send them home disappointed.
"That fed the fire immediately,'' Liantonio said. "That's what kept us going."
Southern had left six runners on base and had only managed three hits in trailing 3-0 heading into the top of the seventh inning before it mounted the decisive rally. Shortstop Ron Velardi, whose father played for Frank in the 1980s, led off the inning with a walk, and then pinch-hitter Dominic Wojdyla drew a one-out walk after a fielder's choice to put two runners aboard against Indians sophomore reliever Trevor Wagner.
Wagner then got a strikeout looking for the second out of the inning, but Toms River South followed by giving away an opportunity to end the game, and Southern made the Indians pay dearly. A potentially game-sealing grounder by Southern catcher Vinnie Colecchia to third base was misplayed to load the bases, and then left fielder Nick Sinopoli was hit by a pitch to cut the deficit to 3-1.
One at-bat after he fouled a ball off his face that may have potentially broken his nose, Liantonio smoked an 0-1 pitch to the left field wall for a three-run double and a stunning 4-3 lead.
"My last at-bat, I was just as aggressive as I could be,'' Liantonio said. "I fouled off the first one, and then he left one up and outside, and I just drove it to left field and did my job. I actually thought it was only two (runs), but luckily we had one of the fastest kids on the team on first (Sinopoli) and he was able to score."
Reliever Ray Ligouri came on for Wagner to get the final out of the seventh inning, and then Southern ensured there would be no magic in the bottom half of the inning to seal the win. Jared Lubanski came on in relief to pitch the seventh, inducing a groundout before a one-out error on a grounder to shortstop put the tying run on first. Lubanski then came up with a huge out when he induced a foul pop-up on the first base side by Rutgers recruit Russell Messler, one of the state's top hitters, for the second out.
When Toms River South attempted to put a runner in scoring position, Colecchia ended the game by gunning down pinch runner Austin Gonella at second base on a steal attempt. It concluded a strong defensive night for Colecchia, who also threw out a runner at home plate following a wild pitch to end the fifth inning.
The game was a pitchers' duel for five-plus innings between Toms River South junior right-hander Tyler Mellot and Southern junior lefty Zach Mason. The Indians scraped across a run in the first inning when Jake Ryan walked, went to third on a hit-and-run groundout and then scored on a two-out single by first baseman Spencer Kapp, who finished 2-for-2 with a walk and a stolen base.
The score remained 1-0 through 5 1/2 innings, as Mellot battled command issues that led to four walks to throw five-plus scoreless innings of three-hit ball, striking out four. He worked out of trouble in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, stranding four runners in scoring position before being pulled for Wagner after giving up a leadoff single to Sinopoli to start the sixth. After the first-inning run, Mason threw four scoreless innings for Southern before running into trouble in the sixth. He finished with four strikeouts and six walks, coming up with big outs when he needed them with runners on base.
Toms River South tacked on two runs in the sixth inning when centerfielder Jake Ryan led off with a double to the right field wall and then came around to score on an RBI single to center field by catcher Ryan Shiffer. On the same play, the throw from the centerfielder missed the cut-off man, resulting in Shiffer breaking for second. Mason scooped up the errant throw and tried to nail Shiffer, but his throw sailed into the outfield, allowing Shiffer to score from second for a 3-0 lead.
Kapp and shortstop Christian Campbell then drew consecutive walks, still with no outs, but Southern reliever T.J. Ring helped put out the fire. He got an out on a sacrifice bunt and then an inning-ending double play when first baseman Chris Starner make a great over-the-shoulder catch on a foul ball and then nailed Kapp at home plate after he tagged up and tried to score.
That kept Southern close enough to mount an impressive comeback on the road. With the Ocean County Tournament seeding coming up, Southern now has some momentum heading into the postseason following a big win in a high-profile game.
"This is by far the biggest confidence-booster we could have had,'' Liantonio said.