LITTLE EGG HARBOR - There are only so many ways to beat a pitcher the caliber of Joey Ventresca - the senior right-hander from Pinelands High School who is committed to Monmouth University and off to a dominant start to his final high school season.

Jackson Liberty found two of them: make him work and counter with a pitcher ready to match scoreless innings.

Senior Kevin Ritz went the distance on the mound and junior Shane Hickey led an offensive effort that ran up Ventresca's pitch count early and came through in key spots in Jackson Liberty's 5-1 win over Pinelands in first of a pivotal two-game set in Class B South.

Jackson Liberty senior Kevin Ritz and junior Shane Hickey. (Photos by Matt Manley)
Jackson Liberty senior Kevin Ritz and junior Shane Hickey. (Photos by Matt Manley)

Ritz out-dueled Ventresca by holding Jackson Liberty to one earned run on five hits over seven innings with five strikeouts against only one walk. He also leaned on a sharp defense, which made four standout plays behind him in the final three innings.

"I knew Ventresca was throwing so I knew it was going to be a battle," Ritz said. "I was locked in. I've had this thing with my shoulder for the last week so I came back focused and wanted to do work. That's what all of us did today."

Hickey, senior shortstop Alex Torres and sophomore first baseman Carl Barth each contributed two of those plays. Torres made a sliding back-handed stop in the shortstop hole and fired for the second out of the sixth inning and Hickey gloved a dangerous grounder over the third-base bag and threw across the diamond for the final out of the inning with runners on first and second.

Both Torres and Hickey started huge double-plays, Torres in the fifth and Hickey in the seventh. With Pinelands threatening with the tying runs on the corners and one out, Torres started a six-four-three double play that Barth completed with a scoop out of the dirt.

In the bottom of the seventh, Hickey made a routine play at third base and when Pinelands senior Noah Dean tried to sneak over to third base from second on Hickey's throw to first, Barth returned the throw across the diamond and Hickey applied the tag for the second out of the inning.

"When you are on the mound, that's exactly what you look for out of your defense," Ritz said. "That is a total team effort to come up with plays like that. That's my favorite part of pitching - watching your defense make a great play behind you and having your boys get all hyped-up."

Before he showed off his glove and arm in the last three innings, Hickey tormented Ventresca at the plate. He fought off an opposite field single in his first at-bat for Jackson Liberty's first hit and fouled off five pitches before winning an 11-pitch battle vs. Ventresca with a single to right field in the fourth. Hickey later came around to score on an infield single by Torres to make it 2-0.

After getting the better of Ventresca after 11 pitches, it took just one in Hickey's third at-bat to inflict damage. The left-handed-swinging third baseman scorched a first-pitch fastball from the Pinelands ace off the right-field fence on one hope to chase home senior center fielder Connor Keenan for a 3-0 Liberty lead in the fifth.

"The longer at-bat you have, the more pitches you see and you really get a feel for what a pitcher is throwing and how he is pitching you," Hickey said. "Seeing as many pitches as I did (in the fourth) got me ready to hit that ball that I hit down the line."

Hickey finished the game 3-for-3 with a walk, a run scored and an RBI to headline the Jackson Libery lineup.

One batter after Hickey singled on the 11th pitch of his at-bat, Jackson Liberty grabbed a 1-0 lead on an RBI single by senior right fielder Scott Wierciszewski.

Ventresca needed 30 pitches to get through that fourth inning and had already thrown 82 pitches through four. He managed to keep his pitch count to 11 each in the fifth and sixth innings but was done after six at 104 pitches. Jackson Liberty tacked on a pair of insurance runs off reliever Patrick Apgar in the seventh, with senior catcher David Melfi (2-for-4) singling in a run and the second run scoring from first on a fielding error in the outfield.

"We knew coming in he had a really good curveball that he'll throw in any count and right away, we saw our leadoff hitter get a curveball first pitch of the game so we were ready for it," Hickey said. "We knew we were going to make him have to throw pitches and try to get to their bullpen, which we were able to do."

Despite taking the loss and failing to complete a start for the first time this season, Ventresca was still plenty effective on Wednesday. He allowed eight hits but only one for extra bases and struck out 10 against just one walk. He labored with his command over the first two innings - when he threw strikes on only 21 of his 40 pitches -  but did not give up a run in either frame. Over the final four frames, he threw 50 of 64 pitches (78 percent) for strikes and finished with 71 of 104 pitches (68.3) for strikes.

Ventresca was limited last season by a knee injury early in the season and was not the same pitcher that earned an All-Shore spot as a sophomore. Early in his senior season, it appears the All-Shore version is back and better than ever, despite Wednesday's loss. In three starts, Ventresca has allowed four runs in 20 innings (1.40 ERA) and has struck out 38 against just three walks.

Ritz had his own physical ailment to overcome and his was more recent. After starting a 10-0 loss to Jackson Memorial on April 6, Ritz was skipped last week to give his sore right shoulder a rest. He came back fresh on Wednesday and returned to the form that helped him post a 2.33 ERA over 36 innings last season.

"It was a light strain and it was more like I was uncomfortable than in pain," Ritz said. "I took some time to rest it and came out strong today."

Pinelands's lone run came in the fifth on an RBI single by Jake Sorbara after a single by Bryce O'Rourke and double by Billy Crawford set up runners on second and third with one out. Ritz induced the double-play ball to end the inning and coasted in his six other innings.

"Primarily, my focus today was staying on top of my fastball," Ritz said. "Stay low in the zone, hit my spots, didn't try to do anything special. I just worked the fastball-curveball combo to keep them off-balance."

Jackson Liberty got off to a roller-coaster start to the season with respect to competition: the Lions routed Donovan Catholic 22-0 to open the year, coasted to a second win over the Griffins, then had to ramp their game up for Jackson Memorial in the third game of the season, which did not turn out well.

Since losing to its crosstown rival, Jackson Liberty has won five straight while moving into pole position in the Class B South divisional race. In the five straight wins, Jackson Liberty has allowed six total runs.

"Once we start to see quality arms like Joey Ventresca game-in and game-out, we're going to start clicking on all cylinders," Ritz said. "We still have more work to do."


Box Score

No. 5 Jackson Liberty 5, Pinelands 1

Jackson Lib (7-1, 7-0)0002102591
Pinelands (4-2, 3-2)0000100152


Kevin Ritz (W, 1-1)75111595
Joey Ventresca (L, 2-1)6833110104
Pat Apgar11223234

Top Hitters

Jackson LibertyStats
Shane Hickey3-3, 2B, R, RBI
David Melfi2-4, R, RBI
Scott Wierciszewski1-3, RBI
Alex Torres1-3, RBI
Connor Keenan1-3, 2 R
Jake Sorbara1-2, RBI
Bryce O’Rourke1-3, R
Billy Crawford1-3, 2B
Noah Dean2-3



More From Shore Sports Network