MANASQUAN - It took well-placed ground ball to the left side of the infield Tuesday afternoon to shift Manasquan junior left-hander Tommy Sheehan from focusing on one of the greatest individual feats a pitcher can achieve to simply winning the biggest game of his Manasquan baseball team's season.

While Sheehan turned out to be so little short of perfect, he still stood tall for his team with a division title on the line.

Sheehan took a perfect game into the seventh inning at Monmouth Regional Tuesday and overcame a hit and a walk in the final frame to nail down a one-hit shutout that gave the Warriors a 1-0 win over the Falcons.

The win secures Manasquan no worse than a share of the Class A Central title, which the Warriors cane win outright with a home win over Rumson-Fair Haven on Thursday or one more loss each by Monmouth and Shore Regional.

Manasquan junior Tommy Sheehan fell just shy of perfection Tuesday but still pitched a one-hit shutout. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"I knew it was going to be tough to get through seven innings without giving up any baserunners," Sheehan said. "I was just concentrating on protecting that one-run lead more than anything. I knew I had to do my best out there in the seventh inning to not give up a run."

Sheehan overwhelmed Monmouth's lineup over the first four innings, striking out nine of the 12 batters he faced - including seven straight from the second out of the first inning to the second out of the third. He then retired the side on only six pitches in the fifth and capped a 10-pitch sixth with his 10th and final strikeout of the game. Sheehan entered the seventh inning having thrown only 66 pitches.

"I was looking up at the scoreboard once in a while and I saw that I hadn't given up a hit, but I tried not to think about it," said Sheehan who threw the first six innings of a nine-inning, combined no-hitter with his older brother Jack against St. John Vianney last season. "I just had to go out there and get three outs to win the game."

The third time through the order turned out to be Sheehan's undoing with respect to the perfect game. Monmouth senior right fielder Christian Hoplock punched an infield single to the shortstop-third-base hole on a 3-2 pitch from Sheehan leading off the bottom of the seventh inning, breaking up the bid at perfection.

"I knew (Hoplock) was a really good hitter and I could see that he was right on my fastball from the first two at bats," Sheehan said. "I was just trying to mix it up a little more with him, get him guessing and just do anything I could to get him."

Sheehan bounced back by fielding a bunt back to him and cut down Hoplock at second to eliminate the lead runner for the first out.

"I just tried to forget about it," Sheehan said of surrendering the hit. "It's not really a big deal. It was an infield hit, it's not anything to beat yourself up about. It's just one hit."

Third baseman Josh Jackson then worked a six-pitch walk and first baseman Paul Birzin slapped a ground ball up the third-base line that Joey Ostberg knocked down and picked up before stepping on the third base bag for the second out. Sheehan then coaxed a game-ending flyout to deep center field by Andrew Slinger to end the game.

"He's just dominant when he's on," first-year Manasquan coach Bob Waldeyer said. "He shows why he's one of the elite pitchers in the league. Every time we have given him the ball, he has not let us down as a team. Not a bad inning, a bad outing a bad sequence of batters, really. You can't ask for much more."

Prior to losing the perfect game and no-hitter all in one shot, Sheehan watched his defense make a play that often defines such games. Manasquan center fielder Pat Kinneally preserved the perfect game in the bottom of the fifth with a sliding catch in shallow center field on a blooper hit by Slinger. Kinneally picked the ball out of the air just before it hit the ground while also avoiding second baseman Ethan Thompson, who tracked out to shallow center in pursuit of the ball.

"I got a little scared when I saw that ball diving into that little area (in shallow center)," Sheehan said. "But Pat made a really good play coming in on that and making that catch. That was really big."

Sheehan also fielded a drag bunt in both the fifth and sixth innings to keep the perfect game alive. Knowing full well it did not have a baserunner against Sheehan to that point, The Falcons tried calling late timeouts and even bunting with two out to get their first baserunner.

"It's the way the game is played, but maybe a less experienced pitcher gets a little rattled when the other team is trying to get in his head," Waldeyer said. "He just takes the ball and throws it harder at them.

"You have to be careful who you do that to with because the elite pitchers are going to take that and use it as motivation. I don't blame them for trying to put the ball on the ground and see if we throw it away or trip over it in a one-run game, but our guys came up big and made the plays."

"It was definitely mixing me up a little bit, but I just tried to not let it get to my head and keep pitching the way I'd been pitching all game," Sheehan said.

Sheehan also knocked in the game's lone run in the first when he ripped an RBI single to center that scored his older brother. Jack Sheehan led off the game with a double inside the third base bag and moved to third on a wild pitch.

Sheehan ended up throwing 85 pitches - 57 of them for strikes - relying heavily on his fastball. While he broke out his breaking ball against the left-handed-heavy top of the Falcons order and flashed a changeup as well, Sheehan dominated the first four innings mostly by blowing his fastball past the Monmouth hitters.

"With the (right-handed hitters), I felt like I could get my fastball by them and the lefties in the lineup, I felt, were their better hitters, so I did a little more to mix it up with them," Sheehan said.

After Tuesday's start, Sheehan is now 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA, 49 strikeouts, four walks and 11 hits allowed over 32 innings this season. While Tuesday's performance was his first seven-inning one-hitter, he also allowed one hit over seven innings in an opening-day game against Raritan that went to extra innings and pitched a five-inning one-hitter against Monmouth in a 12-2 Manasquan win on April 20.

Although Sheehan has been an ace for Manasquan over his first two seasons, he has raised his game this season by dramatically cutting his walk rate. He is averaging 0.87 walks per seven innings this season after 3.18 last year and 4.61 as a freshman. The dip in walks have not damaged his strikeout rate either, as Sheehan is whiffing 10.72 per seven innings after 9.54 last year and 10.38 as a freshman.

Combined the improved control with the heavy arm-side run on his fastball and hitters have had difficulty squaring up the University of Notre Dame recruit this season.

"This year, we've seen a lot of movement on his fastball toward the outside of the plate to right-handers and that's made a huge difference for him," Waldeyer said. "He does pound the zone and I think his concentration level is unbelievable because we have a younger team here and they haven't scored a lot of runs for him."

"I would say I've worked hard in the offseason on my command and on my offspeed pitches," Sheehan said. "I feel like that's really helped with my command and it's helped me get hitters out.

"I'm having a better year because my changeup and curveball has been working well for me and that wasn't really what was happening last year. I kind of struggled with them throughout the year so I really had to rely on my fastball and that wasn't working as well as it is now."

While Sheehan has dominated during the A Central schedule, he has not pitched in any tournament games to date because Manasquan has not yet entered one. Waldeyer opted out of the Monmouth County Tournament, wanting to avoid the potential double-header on April 30 and the likelihood that he would have to expend both Sheehan brothers in order to win those two games.

Waldeyer said he committed early in the year to keep Tommy Sheehan to one start per week, giving him plenty of rest between outings. His last start prior to Tuesday came on April 28, when he threw a four-hit complete game and struck out 13 in a 2-1 win over St. John Vianney.

"He's getting a week between starts and we were keeping a close eye on his pitch count early in the season," Waldeyer said. "We haven't thrown him with four days of rest. With him and Jack, we're trying to make sure we get to the state tournament and Shore Conference Tournament with those two as fresh and healthy as possible. We're looking forward to getting into the tournaments with those two guys."

 

Box Score

Manasquan 1, Monmouth 0

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Manasquan (8-5, 8-3) 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 4 0
Monmouth (9-7, 6-4) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0

Pitching

Manasquan IP H R ER BB SO
Tommy Sheehan (W, 4-0) 7  1  0  0 1  10
Monmouth IP H R ER BB SO
Joe Malfara  (L, 2-4) 7 5  1 1  1  8

Top Hitters

Manasquan Game Stats
Jack Sheehan 1-3, 2B, R
Tommy Sheehan 1-2, RBI
Monmouth Game Stats
Christian Hoplock 1-3