WEST LONG BRANCH - It took only a few innings for Raritan senior right-handed pitcher Matt Birdsall to walk more batters in 2017 than he walked during his entire junior year in 2016. In 45 1/3 innings last year, Birdsall walked merely one batter, so it's understandable that Birdsall could not keep that kind of control up this year.

On the bright side, he may be issuing the free pass more frequently, but the senior right-hander has been more effective than ever for a Raritan team that appears to be on its way to crawling out from the basement of a Class A Central divisional race and back into relevance.

Birdsall did it all on Tuesday against Shore Regional, pitching a complete game with 11 strikeouts while also going 2-for-4 with a double and three RBI to lead the Rockets to a 7-1 win over the Blue Devils to run Raritan's start to the season to 4-1.

The lone run Shore scored against Birdsall on Tuesday was unearned and the right-hander was back to hitting the glove after uncharacteristically walking three in his first outing. He allowed three hits and walked only one while striking out 11. In 13 2/3 innings this season, Birdsall has allowed two earned runs (1.02 ERA) on eight hits and four walks while punching out 22.

Raritan senior Matt Birdsall. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"Last time out, I walked a few more guys than I would have liked," Birdsall said. "Today, I started ahead (in the count) in mostly every at-bat. I put myself in good counts to work with pitches I wanted to work with and in a good position to get outs."

Although the walk rate is far higher than the one he posted last year, when he walked one and struck out 53, his ERA and strikeout rate are trending in the right direction, albeit in only two starts. Birdsall logged a 2.78 ERA in 2016.

"You definitely don't want to walk guys because those walks will come back to bite you," Birdsall said. "So I still want to attack guys and get outs whenever I can, but I know when I have a base open or a guy is hot or hitting me well, I can work around him. I understand that maybe I can walk those guys this year and maybe have faith in my stuff and my defense to get me out of tight jams."

"He's a guy who pounds the zone and has never been afraid to trust his defense," Raritan coach Jeff Struble said of Birdsall. "I think having a young team last year, he's coming into this year with even more confidence in the guys behind him."

Before even taking the mound on Tuesday, Birdsall gave himself an edge by knocking in the first run of the game with an RBI single in the top of the first. He then surrendered a two-out single to Shore second baseman Michael Jelliff - he of the two grand slams in one inning - before working out of trouble and chipped in to a four-run second inning for Raritan by lacing a two-run double to left field.

"I used to try to think how I would get myself out and try to use that at the plate," Birdsall said. "That's not a good way to hit though. You don't want to think that much. As a pitcher, when you're on the mound, you're thinking about how you want to pitch to a guy but when you hit, you just want to be relaxed and not be thinking about too much."

Junior catcher Alex Lammatina preceded that two-run double with a base-loaded, two-run single and sophomore first baseman Jake Tennant followed Birdsall with an RBI single to stretch the lead to 6-0.

Birdsall issued his lone walk with two out in the bottom of the second inning and watched as his defense let him down in the fourth. An error on a shallow fly ball to center with one out started the trouble and a single by James LaBruno got past right fielder George Burdick and allowed junior Tom Dunleavy to score from first. Smolokoff collected two of Shore's three hits.

After the fourth, Birdsall sat at 67 pitches but navigated both the fifth and sixth innings in only 12 pitches to make it to the seventh inning with 91. Another single by LaBruno started the seventh and it took Birdsall 12 pitches to record the next two batters. That gave him 106 pitches, four away from the new NJSIAA limit of 110, which a pitcher can surpass so long as he does so in the middle of an at-bat and is removed at the end of that at-bat.

"He's a senior, he's one of our leaders and if he was struggling, he would communicate that with me," Struble said. "When he's got it working and he's feeling it, you just say, 'Hey it's your game. Go win it.'"

That would not, however, be an issue because Birdsall struck out the final batter of the game on three pitches.

Raritan's 4-1 start to the season will be tested after junior Zack Johnston dislocated his left shoulder while sliding into third base in the top of the seventh. Johnston is one of the Rockets' top pitchers and starting third baseman.

"He said he's feeling okay and he's going to get back, but it's too early to say at this point," Struble said. "We don't have a really deep staff, so it's going to challenge us, but we have Birdsall, we have Jake Tennant, who is very good as a sophomore. We stress a next-man-up mentality and that's how we're going to approach it now and whenever something comes up during the year."


Box Score

Raritan 7, Shore 1

Raritan (4-1, 3-0)15001007122
Shore (1-3, 1-2)0001000133



Matt Birdsall (W, 2-0)7310111109
Mike Deusch (L, 1-1)25663159
Mike Jelliff33110351
Oscar Scott24000129


Top Hitters

RaritanGame Stats
Matt Birdsall2-4, 2B, 3 RBI
Jake Tennant2-3, HBP, RBI
Ken Friend2-3, BB, R
Alex Lammatina1-4, R, 2 RBI
Tim Hayes2-3, R
George Burdick1-2, HBP, RBI, SB
ShoreGame Stats
James LaBruno2-3
Mike Jelliff1-3