Baseball – Howell Tops Marlboro in Battle of Unbeatens
HOWELL - The current crop of Howell baseball seniors began to make an impact four years ago when current senior Troy Miller played as a freshman infielder, primarily at shortstop.
After marking the beginning of the Class of 2016, Miller is now making his mark at the end, both of his career and of games.
Miller won his second game on the mound with his third scoreless relief outing of the season Monday against Marlboro as the Rebels - ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - scored in the bottom of the sixth to beat No. 3 Marlboro, 7-6, in a clash of unbeaten Shore Conference Class A North teams.
The win gives Howell (5-0, 5-0) its best start since the 2010 season.
"It's a great start but I don't think we're all that surprised," Miller said. "We have a lot of seniors on the team and we worked really hard in the offseason and in the preseason. Our pitching's been outstanding and our defense has been solid so far and if we can do those things, we feel like we can win a lot of games."
Howell took a 6-3 lead into the sixth inning before Marlboro mounted a rally to try and stave off its first loss of the season. Miller entered the game with runners on second and third and one out with a run already in to cut the Rebels lead to 6-4. The senior right-hander induced an RBI ground out by Mustangs junior shortstop and leadoff hitter Will Trochiano and coaxed another ground ball by senior third baseman Andrew Gambardella, but a throwing error allowed pinch-hitter Mark Ventre to cross the plate safely from third with the tying run.
Howell answered with a run in the bottom of the frame to grab the lead back. Marlboro senior right-hander Justin Kaplan - the Mustangs' third pitcher of the game - issued back-to-back walks to senior first baseman Tom Scanlon and senior third baseman Mark Iacobino before giving way to junior right-hander Noah Hutter. Grant Hackett sacrificed the runners up a base and designated hitter Nick Ruzchyk followed with a soft line-drive that dropped into shallow left and scored pinch-runner Brian Chaballa from third.
"I really believe you have to have chemistry to win games like this and this team has great chemistry," said senior second baseman Connor Fey, who was 1-for-1 with three walks and a run scored out of a No. 3 spot in the order. "The moment is not going to bother us because every guy in our dugout believes the guy at the plate can do the job."
After allowing two inherited runners to score in the previous inning, Miller shut the door with a one-two-three seventh, capped by a strikeout to end the game.
In his two prior appearances, Miller held Manalapan scoreless in a come-from-behind 2-1 win on opening day and saved a 2-1 win over Freehold Township.
"At that point in the game, I'm just coming in trying to throw strikes," Miller said. "I'm not necessarily trying to overpower guys, but I want to challenge them and make them beat us by putting the ball in play."
"Troy has an unbelievable baseball I.Q and just a great grasp for the game," Howell coach Eric Johnson said. "He actually coached a nine-year old Little League team over the summer. When we get into late-game situations where we're thinking about a bunt or a pinch-hitter, a lot of times I'll run stuff by him, which is not something I've done in the past with other players."
Howell took advantage of a typically sound Marlboro defense Monday that committed an uncharacteristic three errors. Trochiano had to rush a throw to first base in the bottom of the first inning and threw the ball in the dirt, allowing two runs to score with two out. Starting pitcher Donny Alfano made an errant throw on a sacrifice bunt attempt and catcher Gene Napolitano was charged with an error on a miscommunication on a first-and-third play, both of which contributed to another two-run inning in the second for Howell that put the Rebels ahead, 4-3.
Howell scored two clean runs in the third inning, with Ruzchyk skying a double to left to put runners on second and third with none out and sophomore left fielder Eddie Morales and senior catcher Justin Steel knocking runs in with an RBI single and sacrifice fly, respectively.
"It's sometimes tough to build that lineup depth, but we've been fortunate to have some guys really contribute through the lineup so far," Johnson said. "That top of the lineup we have, we feel really good about it and the six-through-nine guys have given us good at-bats in key situations so far."
Monday marked the first time either team struggled on the mound all season long, with the two combining to use seven pitchers. Howell has only used four pitchers in five games this season and turned to senior starter Matt Furlong out of the bullpen Monday after senior starter Donovan O'Malley lost the plate in the second inning after a one-two-three first.
Marlboro drew three walks against O'Malley in the top of the second before junior left fielder Noah Thomas scalded a three-run double inside the third-base bag to give Marlboro a 3-2 lead. O'Malley walked No. 9 hitter Jared Wright, prompting Johnson to call upon Furlong. The right-hander escaped the inning without any further damage and shut Marlboro down over the next three frames before running into trouble in the sixth thanks to a leadoff error, an RBI single by Thomas and a pinch-hit single by Ventre. Furlong did not walk a batter in his four innings of work, struck out four and was charged with three unearned runs.
Entering Monday's game, Howell had allowed only five runs in its first four games, while Marlboro had allowed just four. After play on Monday, Howell still sports a team ERA of 1.81, with Furlong and Miller both sporting spotless 0.00 ERA's - Furlong in nine innings and Miller in five.
Chaballa, the opening-day starter and St. John's recruit, also has an ERA below 2.00 and has struck out 16 in 10 1/3 innings, while O'Malley came into the game off a nine-strikeout performance in a five-inning complete game against Middletown North last week.
"We have seniors who go right at people and it's great playing behind them," Fey said. "Troy has been clutch late in games, Furlong was great again today and Chaballa has been dominant in his starts. (O'Malley) didn't have his best stuff today but he battled and he's going to be really good for us the rest of the way."
Marlboro, meanwhile, used all three of its top three starters to try to win Monday's game, which carried with it seeding implications in the Monmouth County Tournament, which was seeded later the same night. Alfano pitched a shutout against Freehold Borough in his first career varsity start last week but only made it once through the lineup on Monday. Howell scored four runs on the senior right-hander, but only one was earned.
Senior Jeremy Dyzenhaus followed Alfano and after recording three outs in the second, did not retire a batter in the third. Dyzenhaus threw five shutout innings in Marlboro's opener against Union City, then pitched a complete-game gem to beat Middletown South, 3-1, on Wednesday.
Kaplan lasted only three innings in Marlboro's 13-3 win over Manalapan on Friday, but responded with three strong innings Monday before the consecutive walks to open the sixth.
Howell earned the No. 3 seed in the Monmouth County Tournament, while Marlboro came in at No. 4. Red Bank Catholic is the No. 2 seed and the No. 1 seed went to Christian Brothers Academy - the No. 1 team in N.J. who Howell will face in its next game on Thursday.