MANAHAWKIN - Southern Regional senior Nick Simone was the team's most reliable starting pitcher as a junior last season and one of the steadiest pitchers in the Shore Conference Class A South division at the end of last year. One of the reasons the 2017 Southern baseball team is enjoying its best season in more than a decade is because the rest of the staff is pitching like 2016 Nick Simone.

Oddly enough, the only pitcher in this year's starting rotation that has not been pitching more like 2016 Nick Simone is 2017 Nick Simone.

Thursday in the Ocean County Tournament semifinals against Jackson Liberty, Simone returned to form with a two-hit shutout over five innings, which was all it took for Southern to roll up double-digit runs in an 11-0 win over the Lions. With Thursday's win, the Rams earn a trip to the OCT semifinals for the first time since 1987.

Simone entered Thursday with a 1-3 record, a 3.94 earned-run average and a 20-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio - respectable numbers, but short of the standard he set for himself last season. In Thursday's tournament start, Simone was in complete control from the first pitch against a Jackson Liberty team that entered the game having won seven of its last eight games and averaged just under seven runs per game in the process.

"We knew this was coming," Southern coach Keith Cocuzza said. "He really hasn't been pitching bad at all. He's pitched into some bad luck: balls finding holes, some mistakes when he's ahead in the count, things like that. Even though he wasn't quite himself, he still had as many strikeouts as innings and had an ERA under 4.00, so it's not like he was completely lost. Today, though, he had everything working."

From the very start, Simone showed pinpoint command, particularly of his slider, which generated four swings-and-misses in the first inning.

"In warm-ups, when I was doing my bullpen before the game, I knew my slider was on." Simone said. "It was better than it has been all season. My fastball was lacking a little bit today, so I just went to the slider early and dominated with it."

"The key for him is getting the first-pitch fastball over," Watson said. "Once he does that, I feel like I can call whatever I want and he's going to hit the spot."

Simone needed only 52 pitches to get through his five innings Thursday and he threw 41 of those for strikes. Not only did Simone not walk a batter; he never made it to a three-ball count and reached a two-ball just three times all game. He went to a 2-0 count just once and it came on the last batter of the game, which ended with a ground out to second base.

It took Simone just 17 pitches to retire the first six Jackson Liberty batters of the game and by the time he faced a seventh, the Rams had built a 7-0 lead over the first two full innings.

"It gives me so much more confidence to see those runs on the board," Simone said. "I know if I give up a hit and it's not a close game, I have a lot more space to work. It doesn't make me annoyed or frustrated with the baserunners when we have the run support we had today."

Watson backed up his pitcher in a big way by belting a two-run home run in the first inning and clearing the bases with a two-out, three-run double on a 2-2 count in the bottom of the second inning. By the end of the game, Watson was 3-for-3 with five RBI and all three at-bats came with runners in scoring position. His third hit was a line drive into right field that was hit too hard for the runner to score from second base.

"I felt great at the plate," Watson said. "I think a lot of guys went up to the plate thinking swing first pitch, looking for the first fastball they saw. Just teeing off, basically."

While Southern patiently waited for Simone to rediscover his mound magic this year, the Rams also entered Thursday hoping for a better performance in potential run-scoring situations. In a 5-4 loss to Central Regional Wednesday that broke up a 7-1 stretch for the team, the Rams went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, according to Cocuzza.

"We've been in a lot of close games and we have found ways to win a lot of them," said Cocuzza, whose team is 8-2 in games decided by two runs or fewer and 5-1 in one-run games. "In a lot of those games, we've had a chance to break it open with a big hit but we've left guys on in a lot of those situations. The same thing almost happened today, but Nolan did a nice job with two strikes and once those runs came in, I think everyone relaxed a little bit and didn't feel the pressure as much."

Watson's early heroics ignited the offense and opened the floodgates against Jackson Liberty sophomore right-hander Nick DeCarlo, who pitched a complete game in a win over Lacey last week. Southern loaded the bases in the second on back-to-back walks by Joe Colonna and Zach Oddo and a perfect bunt up the third-base line by No. 9 hitter Noah Brown.

DeCarlo, however, retired Joey Robertson and Cole Markley on a pop-up and strikeout, respectively, then jumped ahead of Watson 1-2 in the count. Watson took a fastball just outside the zone on 1-2, then stayed on a 2-2 breaking ball long enough to barrel it up and launch it into the left-centerfield gap to bring home all three runners.

"Pitch selection and swing hard: that's what I was going for," Watson said. "I look for some patterns and these guys (Jackson Liberty) were pretty consistent in their patterns and they showed up and I hit it hard."

Watson was the last hitter DeCarlo faced and Southern junior Marcos Matias welcomed reliever Kevin Ritz by crushing a triple to the left-field fence, chasing home the sixth run of the game and first not driven in by Watson. Matias then scored on an error on a ground ball hit by senior shortstop Pat Barrett - who was the hero on Sunday against Brick Memorial and in a Monday win over Brick.

Barrett hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the 6-4 round-of-16 win over the Mustangs on Sunday and hit a solo home run and pitched a shutout in a 1-0 win over Brick the next day. He finished Thursday's game 2-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI and also handled three clean chances at shortstop.

Watson opened the scoring in the first with a line drive to left field that carried over the fence, staking the Rams to an early 2-0 lead three batters into the bottom of the first.

Southern entered Sunday's OCT opener against Brick Memorial without any team home runs, but have hit four in the last four games. Barrett homered in back-to-back games, Matias went deep in Wednesday's loss, and Watson joined in on the fun on Thursday.

Barrett hit a hard ground ball off of Ritz for an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth to make it 8-0 and right fielder Garret Lange capped the scoring by lining a two-RBI single to right. Barrett would also score all the way from first thanks to a fielding error in the outfield on the single by Lange, who finished the play on second base.

Southern will continue its pursuit of the program's first Ocean County Tournament championship since 1977 when the Rams host Manchester in the semifinal round. The semifinals are scheduled for Saturday, however a forecast calling for rain could push the two semifinal games to early next week. Top-seeded Toms River South hosts Toms River North in the other semifinal.

In light of Simone's performance on Thursday, Southern now has its three top pitchers heading in the right direction as the tournament season heats up. Simon now has a 3.19 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 11 walks in 26 1/3 innings to complement senior left-hander Zach Fillmore (2.08 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings) and Barrett (0.79 ERA in 17 2/3 innings) - the latter of whom just resumed pitching after a shoulder ailment delayed his contribution on the mound and at shortstop.

"It's like we've got three titans out there on the mound," Watson said. "I feel like we can win any game with any three of them pitching. It's a great feeling."

 

Box Score

(3) Southern 11, (6) Jackson Liberty 0 (5 Innings)

1 2 3 4 5 R H E
Jackson Lib. (12-7) 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 2
Southern (11-6) 2 5 0 4 x 11 9 0

 

Pitching

Jackson Lib. IP H R ER BB SO PC
Nick DeCarlo (L, 2-3) 1.2 4 6 6 3 1 48
Kevin Ritz 2.1 5 5 3 0 2 35
Southern IP H R ER BB SO PC
Nick Simone (W, 2-3) 5 2 0 0 0 4 52

Top Hitters

Jackson Lib. Game Stats
Daniel Sofield 1-2
Scott Wierciszowski 1-2
Southern Game Stats
Nolan Watson 3-3, 2B, HR, 5 RBI
Pat Barrett 2-3, R, RBI
Marcos Matias 1-2, 3B, HBP, 2 R, RBI
Garret Lange 1-3, 2 RBI