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JACKSON TWP. - It is hard to envision a "must-win" scenario during the third week of the high-school baseball season, but Jackson Liberty coach Jim Rankin used that term to describe how he saw Wednesday's game against a hot Donovan Catholic squad.

With a big game on the line, there is no one Rankin would rather have with the ball or the bat in his hands than senior Dan Keenan and if you ask Keenan, he would agree with his coach.

Keenan struck out a career-high 12 while pitching a four-hitter Wednesday and right after allowing the tying run to score in the sixth inning, he ignited the winning rally at the plate in Jackson Liberty's 2-1 win over the Griffins.

"I have the same mentality every game," Keenan said. "When I get on that mound, this game is mine. No one is scoring. When they get their base hits, my mentality is I'm doing this all myself and striking everyone out. It's all mental for me."

"This early in the year, you never want to call any game a 'must-win' but sitting at 3-4 with the Shore Conference cutoff coming up on Wednesday, this was as close to a must-win this early as it could possibly be," Rankin said.

Jackson Liberty senior Dan Keenan. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The lone starter on Jackson Liberty's 2019 23-win team, Keenan has been the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff this season and has done whatever has been needed of him as a hitter and position player. He has typically led off, but with sophomore slugger Zaine Toneske unavailable on Wednesday, he pushed down to the No. 3 hole in the order and went 1-for-3 while scoring the winning run.

"It's a shame what happened last year, especially for those seniors," Keenan said. "It was a bad break for all us losing that year, but it's also been a positive in a way because nobody knows who we are. I feel like we have a chance to define who we are and winning a game like today shows we can play different lineups and different styles to win games."

While the offense has been commendable, it is Keenan's pitching that has been indispensable for the Lions during the young season. With his defense playing error-free behind him, the four hits Keenan gave up were the only base-runners Donovan Catholic had all game.

"He pounds the strike zone, he throws three pitches for strikes whenever he wants and he just wants the ball," Rankin said. "He is the perfect guy with the perfect mentality to throw in a game like today."

"I put a lot of work this winter," Keenan said. "I went to a gym every day and was lifting - it's called Invictus and it's especially for pitching. I had arm problems in the fall and it really hurt for me to throw, so I changed my mechanics and relearned how to throw."

Each of the four base-runners made it to second base and two of them got as far as third, with one scoring. In the top of the fourth, Donovan Catholic sophomore Ryan Butchko singled and classmate Gavin Degnan replaced him with a fielder's choice groundout before advancing to second on a wild pitch.

Degnan then stole third when he appeared to be picked off by Keenan, but he just kept running to third and slid under Keenan's throw and senior Jake Hickman's tag. Keenan responded to the close call with a strikeout on the next pitch, followed by another punchout to end the threat.

"Once something like that happens, you just forget about it and do it right here," Keenan said. "That guy won't score if you strike the next two guys out."

"Even though it was two years ago, the experience he got pitching in those late-inning, big-game situations, I think that loomed large for him," Rankin said. "Nothing phases him. Anytime you go out to the mound, there is never any panic in his eyes. He is very cool, very calm, traffic doesn't bother him and he just continues to throw strikes and compete."

Donovan Catholic entered the game on a five-game winning streak and in sole possession of first place in the Shore Conference Class B North division. The Griffins were also out to complete a regular-season sweep of Jackson Liberty, having just defeated the Lions, 7-5, on Monday.

With the winning streak in jeopardy late in the game, Donovan Catholic pulled even at 1-1 with a rally in the top of the sixth. Senior centerfielder Sam Gates ripped a double down the right field line to lead off the inning and advanced to third base on a wild pitch in the dirt. Keenan still managed to strike out back-to-back hitters and had a 0-2 count on sophomore Gavin Degnan with two out, but he uncorked a wild pitch that enabled the speedy Gates to score the tying run with a head-first dive to the plate.

Right after giving up the lead with a wild pitch against Degnan, Keenan got his payback leading off the bottom of the sixth. The senior hit a shot toward the middle that Degnan was able to stop on the backhand, but hurried the throw and lost his grip, giving Jackson Liberty a fast runner on first base in Keenan.

"As soon as I gave up the run, I reset," Keenan said. "I have two outs, go at the guy and guess who is leading off the inning for us? Me, and I said I'm getting on no matter what."

Senior Carl Barth followed with a single through the right side and a passed ball advanced both Keenan and Barth up one base with no one out.

Senior shortstop Garrett Drew then skied a sacrifice fly to centerfield to chase home Keenan with the winning run. Donovan Catholic senior right-hander Bob Nosti limited the damage to one run by retiring the next two batters.

Keenan went back to the mound for the seventh inning at 100 pitches for the game - 10 away from the soft single-game limit by NJSIAA rule. He retired the first two batters on five pitches and completed the game at 109. The nine pitches Keenan threw in the seventh were the fewest he threw in any single inning on Wednesday and it was the lone inning in the game in which he did not strike out a batter.

"Before he went out, we told him, 'You're at a hundred, so you have 10 to work with," Rankin said. "We have no choice but to challenge early so we're just going to go after dudes.' He is very good at carrying out and executing a plan."

Barth also plated the first run of the game for Jackson Liberty with an RBI fielder's choice in the third, set up by an error that led off the inning. Donovan Catholic committed an error leading off both the third and the sixth, leading to unearned runs for both of its pitchers - sophomore Brian Padilla and Nosti. Padilla threw the first four innings and Nosti finished up with the final two.

The defensive lapses by Donovan Catholic marked a role-reversal by the teams relative to Monday, when Jackson Liberty committed six errors in the close loss in Toms River.

The shaky performance Monday dropped the Lions to one game below a .500 winning percentage with their third divisional loss of the season already. Two years ago, Jackson Liberty won the Class B South championship with a perfect 14-0 mark and for the Lions to have any chance at winning it again, they needed to salvage a split with first-place Donovan Catholic.

Wednesday's win was also crucial for Jackson Liberty's Shore Conference Tournament hopes. In most seasons, the Shore Conference Tournament is not seeded until six weeks into the season but the tournament will be seeded on May 12, at which point most teams in the Shore will only be about halfway through their respective divisional schedules. Despite the early start, teams will still have to sport a winning percentage of .500 or better by the May 12 cutoff in order to qualify and Jackson Liberty's Wednesday win put them back in good standing, for the moment, with regard to SCT qualification.

"We were disappointed with the way we played on Monday - not so much because we lost but just the mistakes and the errors," Rankin said. "This today is the type of team we are capable of being. It helps to have Danny Keenan on the mound and while we didn't swing the bats much today, we did some things situationally, came through in some spots and made some plays behind him. With him on the mound, at the very least, you're going to be in games."

Box Score

Jackson Liberty 2, Donovan Catholic 1

1234567RHE
Donovan (6-2, 3-1)0000010142
Jackson Lib (4-4, 3-3)001001X250

Pitching

Donovan CatholicIPHRERBBSOPC
Brian Padilla44101360
Bob Nosti (L, 0-1)21100022
Jackson LibertyIPHRERBBSOPC
Dan Keenan (W, 3-1)7411012109

Top Hitters

Donovan CatholicGame Stats
Sam Gates1-3, 2B, R
Hunter Johnson1-2, 2B
Jackson LibertyGame Stats
Garrett Drew1-2, RBI
Dan Keenan1-3, R
Carl Barth1-3, RBI