Baseball – Groome Returns to Boost Barnegat in OCT
BARNEGAT - Barnegat head baseball coach Dan McCoy used the term "rusty" to describe senior ace Jason Groome's performance Saturday, his first since the NJSIAA ruled him ineligible to pitch for 19 days due to a violation of the state's transfer rules.
When the bar is as high as his last start - a 19-strikeout no-hitter that was officially struck from the record due to his ineligible status - maybe Groome's performance against Pinelands in the first round of the Ocean County Tournament could be described as rusty by that measure. By any other measure, it was dominant.
Groome pitched a two-hit shutout in his return to action, striking out 13 Wildcats to help lead the Bengals - the No. 8 seed in the tournament - to a 2-0 win over their Shore Conference Class B South division rivals and into the quarterfinal round of the tournament. Barnegat is scheduled to take on top-seeded and unbeaten Point Pleasant Borough on Sunday, weather permitting.
"It felt great (to pitch again)," Groome said. "I was hoping it would come sooner, but unfortunately it didn't. I'm happy it came today. It's a beautiful day, I pitched great and the team got it done with the bats and that's all I could ask for."
Beyond his excitement to return to the mound, Groome opted not to discuss his absence over the previous 19 days any further.
"It's something I'm not really going to discuss right now," said Groome, who returned to his hometown school after spending his junior season at IMG Academy at Fla., only to find out two starts in that his stint down south did not including a bona fide change of address and thus, he was required to sit 30 days before becoming eligible.
In his first start since his 19-strikeout masterpiece against Central Regional in which the only baserunner reached on an error, Groome again flashed the repertoire of a potential No. 1 draft pick and a likely top-five selection in early June in front of a gathering of MLB scouts and personnel, albeit a smaller one than attended the April 5 opener. His fastball topped out at 94 miles-per-hour over the first four innings and he settled into the 88-to-92 range over his final three frames.
"I've seen him better, but the bar is set really high for him," McCoy said. "He was a little bit rusty - Jay's usual pounds strike one and he wasn't really doing that today. But he still went out and competed and got his work in."
The Pinelands lineup forced him to throw 97 pitches, which was three fewer than the pregame limit that McCoy put on Groome. The 6-foot-6 southpaw took a pitch count of 89 into the final inning and after allowing his second hit of the game to lead off the seventh, he struck out the next batter on three pitchers, then induced a come-backer to the mound and started the game-ending one-six-three double play.
Groome issued three walks in the game and needed 25 pitches to get through a somewhat tumultuous sixth. He walked Pinelands freshmen Anthony Diaz and Joey Ventresca in the inning, both on 3-2 secondary pitches that missed low. Of Groome's 97 pitches, 36 (37 percent) were breaking balls, five were changeups and the rest were some variation of the fastball.
"I heard their coach (Rob Sanzari) tell them to go after the first fastball, so I wanted to start them off with some curveballs," Groome said. "I like to pitch backwards anyway, so if they were expecting a fastball, I wanted to give them a different look and then once they are thinking, I can come back and challenge them."
Groome escaped the first-and-second, two-out jam by inducing an inning-ending ground ball out. Of the eight in-play outs Groome induced, none reached the outfield.
Both hits against Groome were line-drive singles to right field by right-handed hitters against the fastball. Catcher Brad O'Brien led off the third inning with a clean line drive single to right field and Ryan Ross put an inside-out swing on a Groome fastball and flipped a line drive over Barnegat second baseman Christian Padilla's reach.
After his strikeout clinic in his last start and a 10-strikeout performance in four innings against unbeaten Point Boro, Groome faced a pesky Pinelands lineup that swung early in the count and adjusted to the breaking ball over the course of the game. Groome struck out the side just one time, which came around a walk in the fourth inning. He began the game by retiring the first six batters, four on strikeouts, before O'Brien singled to start the seventh.
"Every time Jay goes out, we joke as a team and as a staff, 'Hey, is somebody going to get a hit today?," McCoy said. "That's not being mean to the other team, it's just that his stuff is so good that when guys just put the ball in play, it's like, 'Wow, good swing.' At this level, it's hard to square Jay's ball up."
Barnegat gave Groome all the support he needed in the bottom of the third, when the Bengals plated both of their runs. Right fielder Anthony Lani led the inning off with an infield single and Padilla took his spot at first after he grounded into a fielder's choice.
Junior shortstop Aaron McLaughlin then smacked a double to left field to set Barnegat up with runners on second and third with one out. Senior center fielder Collin O'Conner followed with a slow ground ball toward third and both Diaz and Ventresca collided while trying to field it, allowing Padilla score the game's first run.
Barnegat stole the second run when Pinelands starter Noah Dean threw the ball away at second after O'Conner took off before Dean could deliver the pitch. McLaughlin broke for home as Dean turned to make the throw at second.
Dean was spotless for Pinelands outside of the third-inning trouble, as the freshman left-hander allowed two runs on six hits with no walks and five strikeouts.
"It was a great learning experience for our guys," Sanzari said. "We didn't come here to lose, but we knew what we were up against and he is as advertised. Everything is so effortless and natural. I thought for as tough as he was, our guys battled and made him work and for how young we are, that's what we wanted to see."
Barnegat will look to knock off Point Boro Sunday in the third meeting between the teams. Barnegat defeated Point Boro, 2-0, on April 5, but the win was nullified because of Groome's ineligible status. Barnegat then broke up a no-hitter by Josiah Gliddon and tied the game - all in the top of the seventh - in the last meeting before the Panthers pulled out a 3-2 win in eight innings.
Groome's next start will depend on the result of the quarterfinal game vs. Point Boro. If Barnegat wins, Groome will likely face either Jackson Liberty or Toms River North in the semifinals on Saturday. Toms River North is currently the highest scoring Shore Conference team outside of the Class B Central division.
Should Point Boro defeat Barnegat, Groome's next turn in the rotation would be on Thursday at Lakewood.
"I came back here to compete for a state title and we're not going to stop until we get there," Groome said. "I always emphasize to take things day-by-day, take it one game at a time and eventually we'll get to where we need to be."