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For the past four months, Anthony Esposito and his Middletown South classmates from the Class of 2020 - like all other high-school baseball players in New Jersey - watched their season slip away without it every starting and without anything they could do about it.

On Thursday morning in Wall, Esposito and his MS Baseball club were again staring down the prospects of the end, only this time, there was something they could do about it.

Esposito crushed a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning and MS Baseball walked off with a 7-4 win over Matawan Thursday in the Last Dance World Series Pool Play Championship Round. With the win, Middletown South's stay in statewide tournament extends into next week and the South Jersey Round of 16 on Tuesday.

"We really worked hard all day to come back," said Esposito, who would have made the move to full-time starting catcher this season. "I felt like I was struggling behind the plate all day, so it felt good to pick my team up when we needed it."

MS Baseball trailed by two runs on two different occasions and came back in each instance. The Eagles rallied for single runs in the sixth and seventh innings to erase a 2-0 deficit, but Matawan responded with two runs in the top of the eighth to jump back in front, 4-2. Aiden Holman and Tim Egan hit back-to-back singles with one out and moved up a base on a wild pitch with Ryan Anderson at the plate.

Anderson hit a line drive to centerfielder Tom DeMarco, shallow enough for a play at the plate. First baseman Joe Stanzione relayed the throw from the outfield to Esposito at the plate, but Holman slid in just under the tag for the go-ahead run. Egan then scored on a wild pitch to add an extra run to the cushion.

MS Baseball led off the bottom of the eighth with the top of its order and got right to work, starting with Danny Minze reaching on a hit-by-pitch. Second baseman Jack Sheridan followed with a single through the left side and both players moved up on a wild pitch. Another wild pitch with shortstop Chris O'Connor at the plate scored Minze and moved Sheridan to third as the tying run with none out.

O'Connor settled for a walk and Stanzione followed with another hit-by-pitch to load them up for Esposito with none out. The left-handed-swinging backstop saw two pitches and on a 1-1 offering from Matawan reliever Christian Rivera, he unloaded with a long drive to right field that comfortably cleared the fence and set off a celebration at home plate.

"With no outs, I'm trying to put one out to the outfield and make something happen," Esposito said. "He left one in, so I took it out."

O'Connor got the Eagles on the scoreboard with an RBI single in the sixth and freshman Ben Schild came through with a game-tying, pinch-hit sacrifice fly with one out in the bottom of the seventh that scored starting pitcher Chris Lotito.

Lotito struck out 15 and fired 120 pitches in six innings of work in taking the no-decision. One of the two runs the Seton-Hall-bound right-hander allowed was unearned and he surrendered three hits and five walks in the process.

Junior Matt Pontari took over in the seventh and struck out three straight after hitting Matawan leadoff man Jay Kalieta. Matawan chased Pontari in the eighth and after Jack Shea walked the only batter he faced, Evan Wood induced an inning-ending groundout to position himself for the win.

"Chris threw a gem like he usually does and we have guys all the way down the lineup," Esposito said. "We can go for 28 innings if you want us to. We have the pitching to do it."

Matawan starter Eli Gries-Smith pitched seven innings in taking the no-decision. He allowed one earned run on six hits and three walks while striking out one and throwing 103 pitches. Gries-Smith also went 2-for-3 at the plate.

Middletown South's offense has been reliable throughout the week and the long ball has been a big part of it. The Eagles beat Shore Regional's Jersey Shore Monsters on Tuesday, 12-0, behind an attack that included a home run by junior Mike Cowell - who finished Thursday 2-for-3 at the plate.

On Wednesday, MS Baseball pounded Colts Neck's Cougars Baseball club, 11-1, behind a grand slam by Pontari.

Even with a scoreless five innings to open the game, MS Baseball still collected 10 hits.

If Thursday's ending wasn't dramatic enough, Middletown South's next opponent sets up even more drama on Tuesday. Middletown North entered the Last Dance as the No. 4 seed in the four-team Freehold Regional pool and after surviving that foursome, defeated CBA's Lincroft Colts squad on Thursday. That sets up a meeting between the two crosstown rivals Tuesday at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, with the winner moving on to the final eight in South Jersey and the loser headed home after authoring a memorable run during the course of more than a week.

"We're brothers," Esposito said. "We have been playing with each other since we were eight years old and then our seniors season was canceled. Having this (Last Dance Tournament), letting us play one last time together, we're just trying to show what we can do."

Box Score

MS Baseball 7, Matawan 4

Matawan (2-1)00200002251
MS Baseball (3-0)000001157101



Eli Gries-Smith782231103
Christian Rivera (L)02551016
Chris Lotito6321515120
Matt Pontari1.22222341
Jack Shea0000105
Evan Wood (W)0.1000008


Top Hitters

MatawanGame Stats
Eli Gries-Smith2-3, BB
Aiden Holman1-3, R
Tim Egan1-4, R
Griffin Falco1-4, BB
MS BaseballGame Stats
Anthony Esposito2-3, HR, BB, R, 4 RBI
Chris O’Connor2-3, 2B, BB, R, RBI
Mike Cowell2-3
Chris Lotito1-2, BB, R
Patrick Eagone1-2
Mike Rauso1-2
Jack Sheridan1-4, R


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