Toms River North junior Craig Larsen is technically a returning starter for the Mariners this season, but there were times during his sophomore season in which he played second base but gave way to a designated hitter on offense.

In Toms River North's Strike Out Autism Awareness game on Saturday, Larsen slotted into the No. 3 spot in the batting order against Middletown North and junior ace Tyler Ras - a 6-foot-3 Alabama commit with a fastball that sits comfortably in the low 90-miles-per-hour range.

That No. 3 spot in the order is noteworthy at Toms River North, because it was occupied last year by Shore Sports Network Hitter of the Year Joey Rose, who is now playing in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. Without Rose and last year's cleanup hitter Jeff Ciervo, Toms River North lacks some of the power potential that it boasted last year, but Larsen showed early in Saturday's game that he is no glove-only player and this Mariners lineup showed it is no downgrade.

Toms River North junior Craig Larsen (left). (Photo by Matt Manley)

Larsen jumped on an elevated, 92-mile-per-hour fastball by Ras in the top of the first inning and hammered it to the wall in left-center field at Ken Frank Field and that swing more than drove in the first run. It sent a message that, just like last year's team, this Toms River North lineup is ready to be a giant-slayer to aces around N.J. once again.

What followed was a statement from the entire Toms River North team that the Mariners are built to have a special season. The Shore Sports Network's No. 1 team chased Ras after 4 2/3 innings and scored 13 runs on 11 hits for the game in a 13-1 drubbing of the No. 7 ranked team in the SSN Preseason Top 10.

Larsen went 2-for-5 with three RBI out of the No. 3 spot in the order and was part of a huge effort by the top three hitters in the batting order. Senior shortstop Mike Nyisztor and senior third baseman Austin Feigin hit in the top two spots in the order last year as well and combined with Larsen to go 6-for-13 with two doubles, a home run, six runs scored and 10 RBI.

"Maybe our power numbers will be a little down as a team from where they were last year, but I think we'll be able to get just as many hits," Feigin said. "Everybody is swinging up the middle and making good contact."

Feigin did the most damage over the course of the game, finishing 2-for-4 with five RBI. The senior punched a 2-2 fastball from Ras over the head of right fielder Jason Timmons for a two-run double in the second inning and smashed a fastball from Timmons over the left-center field wall for a three-run home run in the top of the seventh.

Toms River North senior Austin Feigin approaches home plate after homering on Saturday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Feigin, who played left field for the Mariners last season, also made a slick play at third base in the fifth inning, back-handing a hot shot by left-handed hitter Cody Sharkey, spinning to his right to square up and making an accurate throw to first for the second out of the inning.

Nyisztor also played a clean game in the field and finished off his day with a pair of productive at-bats. He smashed a bases-loaded, two-RBI single to left field in the fifth that turned into four runs when the ball got through Sharkey in left and rolled to the wall. Nyisztor flew around the bases to score and give Toms River North a commanding 9-1 lead.

Saturday's 13 runs continued a trend of Toms River North roughing up high-profile pitchers over the last two years. The Mariners scored eight runs in a win over Monroe last year with current North Carolina right-hander Robbie Peto on the mound and later knocked out current Red Sox top prospect Jason Groome in 4 2/3 innings in a 7-1 Toms River North win.

"A lot of us are very experienced," Feigin said. "We have a lot of two-or-three-year starters and have always been a team that rises to the occasion. Last year, with facing Groome and some of those other kids we faced last year, I think everyone is prepared for a game like this."

Middletown North junior pitcher Tyler Ras. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Toms River North's preparation to face Ras was similar to its preparation for Groome and the final lines Ras and Groome settled for ended up equally similar. Ras allowed seven runs (four earned) on five hits while walking two, hitting two and striking out eight on 96 pitches. Groome also lasted 4 2/3 innings, allowing seven runs (four earned) on six hits, three walks and one hit batter while striking out nine on 87 pitches.

"We knew Ras was a very good pitcher and he throws hard, so we gassed up our Jugs (pitching) machine," Feigin said. "We were in the cages while it was raining outside and everybody dug in a little bit harder so we could see some tougher pitching and we came out ready for it."

A 13-run outburst against a Division I arm is naturally going to grab the headlines, but the most promising part of this Toms River North team might be its pitching and it has been on full display in the two games the Mariners have played this year. Junior Brendan Mullins, who is a Division I arm in his own right heading to Penn State in two years, handled the Middletown North lineup Saturday in his first start of the season. Mullins cruised through five innings, allowing one run on three hits and a walk while striking out five.

"I look at it like any other game," Mullins said. "I know we're going to hit and make plays in the field. I just do my thing and I know we'll come out on top."

Mullins also showed his toughness when he fouled a ball off his lower left leg in the third and writhed on the ground in pain for several minutes, only to pop up and single to left field on the very next pitch. He also pitched three more innings after the scare.

Toms River North junior Brendan Mullins. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

As only a sophomore last year, Mullins emerged as Toms River North's big-game pitcher. He was the Ocean County Tournament MVP, which he secured by allowing one run in seven innings against Toms River South in the championship game. He features a heavy two-seam fastball that produced seven groundball outs on Saturday to just one fly ball out to the outfield - which came on his 83rd and final pitch of his outing.

The two Shore Conference teams with rosters rivaling that of Toms River North as the season opens are Red Bank Catholic and aforementioned Toms River South. Toms River North has handled RBC over the last two years when the teams have met, but Toms River South has presented a challenge - as should be expected from a rival. Indians ace Trevor Wagner - who is now at Monmouth University - no-hit Toms River North in his first start last year and held them to two runs in the OCT final.

The Indians and Mariners were scheduled to play on Thursday before rain postponed the game to a later date that has yet to be made official. Toms River South is also off to a 2-0 start with wins over Jackson Memorial and Barnegat.

"We've been sitting around all week, waiting to play," Mullins said. "We're glad to finally get on the field. We've been looking forward to the year and we're ready."

 

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