Baseball – A.J. Smith’s 9-Inning Masterpiece Sends Central to SCT Final
RED BANK - For the first eight innings of Wednesday's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal classic against second-seeded Wall, Central Regional senior A.J. Smith did all he could on the mound to keep his 11th-seeded Golden Eagles in position to knock off the current No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10.
After one of his many senior teammates finally ended an eight-inning scoreless drought by both teams, Smith needed just one more efficient inning to move his senior-laden squad to within another win of completing a historic season for a program with no shortage of winning tradition.
After senior Tyler Aires connected on a go-ahead solo home run to lead off the ninth, Smith finished off a nine-inning, four-hit masterpiece as Central knocked off Wall, 1-0, to advance to the SCT championship game for the first time since winning the tournament in 1980 - the first year the SCT was played.
Among Central's nine starters in the field and one more at designated hitter, seven of them were seniors looking to extend their season to Monday's championship game at FirstEnergy Park. Smith took the loss in Central's NJSIAA South Jersey Group III quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Timber Creek and with six days to think about it and prepare, he authored his best performance of the season and, likely, his high school career.
"We all knew coming into this game that this could be our last high school game," Smith said of the seniors. "We were out of (the NJSIAA Tournament) earlier than we expected to be, but we just kept pushing forward to tonight and came out with the 'W'."
Smith has not been as steady as he was during his junior 2017, when he went 5-0 with a 1.15 ERA to land a Shore Sports Network All-Shore spot. He still has been a horse for Central at 7-4 with 54 1/3 innings heading into the game, but had not pitched a scoreless outing all season before Wednesday.
"I came out really slow this year, but I just told myself, 'We're going to play in the playoffs,'" Smith said. "I just kept telling myself, when the playoffs come, I'm going to be better."
The primary reason Smith was able to complete a nine-inning game was his early-game efficiency. He needed just 38 pitches to get through four innings and 50 to complete five. He did walk two batters, but he also threw 80 of his 110 pitches for strikes and struck out four Crimson Knights hitters.
"He's very dangerous when he is hitting his spots like he was tonight," Central coach Mike Casale said of Smith. "He doesn't overpower you, but tonight he had some extra velocity and he was still hitting his spots and keeping hitter's off balance and working down. Honestly, this year, he hasn't had that game yet, but tonight, he had that game. He stepped up and threw his best game of the year when we needed him to."
The reason he won the game, however, might have come down to one play that was not even a pitch. With Wall runners at the corners and two out in the bottom of the seventh, Smith buried a breaking ball in the dirt that Crimson Knights junior catcher David Howarth chased for a swinging strike. The ball, however, got past Central senior catcher Tom Ruscitti and to the backstop, prompting Andy Lenneper to take off from third in hopes of scoring the winning run.
Ruscitti quickly got the ball and flipped it back toward the plate. Not hesitating to cover home, Smith darted to the dish and dove to catch Ruscitti's toss while tagging Lenneper for the final out of the seventh.
"I knew it would be a bang-bang play," Smith said, recounting the play. "Tommy made an incredible throw from his knees and I grabbed the ball and tagged the kid's hand.
"I know that's the season right there, but I'm trying not to think about it. To battle like we did and have the game come down to a play like that and to perfect it the way we did, it's a great feeling to be able to come through like that."
Smith later induced an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the eighth to bring up Aires leading off the top of the ninth. On a 1-1 offering from Wall senior reliever Jason Horowitz, Aires unleashed a high drive to left field that chased Lenneper back to the fence. The senior left fielder ran out of room and could only watch as the ball bounced on the other side of the wall for the game's first and only run.
"I didn't think it was going out, not the way the ball was carrying tonight," Aires said. "I hustled out of the box and then I saw it bounce and I knew I was okay."
"It was the best feeling ever," Smith said. "I just knew that now that we got one run, I was going to shut it down."
Aires started the season in a cold spell after an All-Shore season as a junior but has picked up his offense of late. Since May 5, when he hit his first home run of the season in an Ocean County Tournament win over Southern, Aires is hitting .367/.500/.667 in 30 at-bats with three doubles and two home runs.
"I've just been more calm and confident at the plate," Aires said. "When I got off to the slow start, I just told myself I needed to get going for my team. I wanted to come through for them and that's what I did tonight."
Wall sent the top of its order to the plate in the bottom of the ninth in an attempt to rally. Junior second baseman John Volpe, who finished 2-for-4 in the game, fouled out to the first base side for the first out. Junior shortstop Dylan Richey then fouled off three two-strike pitches, but Smith put him away with a high fastball for his fourth and final strikeout. Junior starting pitcher Grant Shulman than lifted a high fly ball to center that senior Shane Black camped under and squeezed for the final out.
Shulman was magnificent in his own right for Wall on Wednesday night. He lasted 7 1/3 scoreless innings before reaching the single-game pitch limit, during which he allowed five hits and one walk while striking out 11. A 31-pitch fourth inning turned out to be the one that prevented Shulman from pitching into the ninth like his counterpart did, although the junior right-hander managed to escape the inning without allowing a run. In Shulman's seven-plus innings, no Central player reached third base.
Central will take on Shore Conference Class A South division rival Toms River North in the Shore Conference Tournament final Monday at FirstEnergy Park at 7 p.m. It will mark a rubber match for the two division foes, with Central winning the first meeting at home, 8-4, and Toms River North returning the favor, 3-0, in the second showdown.
"We've always played close games with (Toms River North)," Smith said. "They've got good pitchers, we've got good pitchers - it's really just about who ever shows up and who is ready to play. We are going to be ready to play because after losing our state game, we don't want to end our senior season without a win."
With four days between games, Smith and every other pitcher on both rosters will be eligible to go a full 110 pitches in a game that will pit the very first Shore Conference champion against the most recent one. Central has not been back to the SCT final since beating Toms River South, 7-6, in the 1980 final, while Toms River North has won two titles in the past five years and is seeking a third in the last six.
"We knew coming into the year we were going to do something special," Aires said. "After losing in states, we knew it was going to have to be the Shore Conference. Once we set our sights on that, we are bulldogs. We want to win."
Central 1, Wall 0 (9 Innings)
|A.J. Smith (W, 8-4)||9||4||0||0||2||4||110|
|Jason Horowitz (L, 0-1)||1.2||1||1||1||0||0||18|
|Tyler Aires||2-4, HR, R, RBI|
|Colin Stacy||1-4, 2B|