POINT PLEASANT BORO - There is no player on his team or anywhere else Jackson Liberty coach Jim Rankin would rather send up to the plate with the game on the line than senior catcher David Melfi.

"No doubt," Rankin said when asked it he thought he would come through in that spot. "He is pretty much automatic."

Melfi eventually validated his coach's confidence with a crucial hit in Jackson Liberty's game-winning, three-run rally in the top of the seventh inning Monday at Point Pleasant Boro but before he did, a few other Lions players made a believer out of Rankin and put the game in the hands of Jackson Liberty's star.

The bottom of the Jackson Liberty lineup started the deciding rally, Melfi tied the game with a two-out RBI single and junior Shane Hickey followed with the go-ahead RBI single to help Jackson Liberty - No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - rally past the Panthers in a critical Shore Conference Class B South showdown.

Jackson Liberty junior Shane Hickey. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"You could make a case for a lot of at-bats as the most important at-bat of that inning, but that's what it takes to win a game like that," Rankin said. "You need every guy who comes to the plate to have a winning at-bat and that's what we were able to do in the seventh."

With the win, Jackson Liberty can now close out the Class B South championship race by beating Point Boro at home on Wednesday. It also extended Jackson Liberty's winning streak to 11 games while halting Point Boro's at 10.

Jackson Liberty entered the top of the seventh trailing Point Boro and junior ace Nick Guzzi, 4-2 with the bottom of the order due up. Guzzi threw 93 pitches through six innings - 17 shot of the single-game limit by NJSIAA rules.

"Anytime we are facing a top guy like Guzzi, especially when he is coming up on 110 pitches, we preach to our guys to go up and try to work the count," Rankin said. "Point Boro's got some good pitchers they can bring in, but Guzzi is their guy so if we can force them to bring in somebody else, we feel good about our chances."

Senior shortstop Alex Torres led off the inning with a six-pitch walk but Guzzi responded with a strikeout on three pitches for the first out.

Sophomore Daniel Keenan then came to the plate in the No. 9 spot after entering the game on the mound the prior inning, replacing designated hitter Gavin Maarberg in the order. With a 1-2 count against the St. John's commit on the mound, Keenan slapped the ball inside the first-base bag and scootered to second for a one-out double that put the tying runs on second and third with one out.

"Dan Keenan came up huge," Melfi said. "That was the most important at-bat of the inning. That got the tying run on, it brought the top of the order up and it fired up our dugout."

"Coming in cold off the bench, only a sophomore, having just pitched out of a jam the inning before - that's why, to me, that was the biggest at-bat of that inning for us," Rankin said of Keenan's double.

Guzzi bounced back with another strikeout against senior leadoff hitter Connor Keenan, but it took him six pitches and pushed him beyond 110 pitches for the game. Guzzi gave the ball to coach Dave Drew, who called upon junior Sam Young to record the final out.

Senior Charlie Rudderow stepped to the plate already with two hits off Guzzi and worked the count full after falling behind, 1-2. Rudderow hit a slow ground ball to third that forced Guzzi - now playing at the hot corner - to hurry and he could not handle the ball cleanly enough to take a shot at first base. Rudderow had his third hit and Jackson Liberty was a run closer, with Torres scoring and Keenan moving to third with the tying run.

Rudderow's hit extended the game for Melfi, who is Jackson Liberty's only 100-hit player in program history. He was also coming off a two-homer game Sunday in a 9-1 win over Washington Township. The senior catcher took a pitch for ball one, then smacked a hard ground ball through the middle to tie the game and push Rudderow to second with the go-ahead run.

Jackson Liberty senior David Melfi. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"I'm confident in those situations because I keep a pretty simple approach," Melfi said. "I just try to think about seeing the ball and trying to hit a line drive to center field which is pretty much what I did."

As hot as Melfi has been this season (.511, nine doubles, four homers and 31 RBI in 14 games), a team in Point Boro's position has to think twice about giving him a free pass to first base because of the man hitting behind him. Hickey is hitting .405 with five doubles and a homer during his junior season and against Guzzi, he was 0-for-2 with a walk, an RBI  and plate appearances of seven, seven and eight pitches.

"Nobody grinds out at-bats like Shane Hickey," Rankin said. "Last year, we had Hickey batting before Melfi but we have switched it up this year for exactly the reason you saw today. If you want to pitch around Melfi, you are going to have to face Hickey."

Young made a big 2-1 pitch on the corner to Hickey after falling behind to get the count even at 2-2. Hickey locked in and hit a hard chopper to the right side that took off into right field when it hit the lip of the grass.

Rudderow motored around third and the throw from right field beat Rudderow, but the in-between hop prevented catcher Ryan Jasaitis from handling it cleanly. Rudderow stopped to avoid a collision, then maneuvered around Jasaitis to dive at the plate and touch down with the go-ahead run before Jasaitis could tag him with the ball.

"Charlie Rudderow has quietly been great for us over the last couple of weeks," Rankin said. "He battles at the plate, he can hit a gap and he has been great on the bases. He scored from second on a ground ball on the infield the other day, so when I see him on second base and there is a ball into the outfield, I wasn't hesitating to send him there."

After a dramatic seventh-inning comeback against one of the Shore's top pitchers, Jackson Liberty turned to hard-throwing senior Nick DeCarlo to close out the win. Young reached on an error to start the inning on the right foot for Point Boro but DeCarlo came back with consecutive strikeouts.

Designated hitter Luke Severio kept Point Boro alive with a single to left field while also pushing the tying run to second. Senior center fielder and No. 9 hitter Christian Aurin stepped up having already tripled in the game, but DeCarlo struck him out to end the game.

DeCarlo closed out a game started by senior Kevin Ritz, who struck out seven and walked two while allowing three earned runs on five hits over the first five innings. Keenan came on to pitch the sixth tasked with keeping Jackson Liberty's deficit at two and struck out the first two batters he faced. The top of Point Boro's order then made two-out noise, with senior Sam Collins singling and going to third on a double by junior Nick Zbikowski.

Jackson Liberty elected to walk Guzzi and the decision paid off with Keenan striking out senior Paul Fraceschini.

One inning earlier, Franceschini had the big hit in a three-run rally that helped Point Boro surge in front, 4-2. Collins reached on an error to lead it off before Guzzi doubled him to third with one out. Franceschini then ripped a line drive toward the left-field corner for a two-run double and a 3-2 Point Boro lead. Young followed with a single and Jasaitis chased Franceschini home with an RBI fielder's choice ground out to make it 4-2.

Jackson Liberty opened the scoring with a run in the first on an RBI ground out by Hickey before Point Boro finally pulled even in the bottom of the third when Aurin tripled on a sinking line drive to left and scored on an RBI single through the middle by Collins.

The Lions came right back with a run in the top of the fourth, with junior Brandon Kinsman plating Hickey on a sacrifice fly to make it 2-1 in favor of Jackson Liberty.

Guzzi struck out eight, walked two and allowed three earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings in taking a no-decision. Young suffered the loss in relief and fell to 4-1 on the season.

Jackson Liberty has pummeled B South competition for most of its 11-game winning streak, but its last three wins over the past three days have showed the Lions can handle tough competition. They traveled to Jersey City on Saturday and beat St. Peter's Prep, 12-7, then ventured south to Mainland Regional High School, where they beat Washington Township, 9-1. The Lions wrapped up their three wins in three days by outlasting one of the Shore's top right-handers in Guzzi, who is currently 4-0 with a 1.18 ERA, 50 strikeouts and seven walks in 29 2/3 innings this season.

"It was great to be in a game like this," Melfi said. "We have played in some blowouts this year and I think we needed to get into one of these games against a really tough pitcher where we had to grind it out and fight. Wins like this are what make you a better team, especially going into the playoffs."

 

Box Score

Jackson Liberty 5, Point Boro 4

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Jackson Lib (13-1, 11-0) 1 0 0 1 0 0 3 5 7 3
Pt Boro (11-2, 9-2) 0 0 1 3 0 0 0 4 9 2

Pitching

Jackson Liberty IP H R ER BB SO PC
Kevin Ritz 5 5 4 2 2 7 81
Daniel Keenan (W, 3-0) 1 2 0 0 1 3 15
Nick DeCarlo (SV, 1) 1 1 0 0 0 3 18
Point Boro IP H R ER BB SO PC
Nick Guzzi 6.2 4 4 3 2 8 113
Sam Young (L, 4-1) 0.1 3 1 1 0 0 17

Top Hitters

Jackson Liberty Stats
Charlie Rudderow 3-4, 2 R, RBI
Shane Hickey 1-3, R, 2 RBI
David Melfi 1-3, RBI
Daniel Keenan 1-1, 2B, R
Scott Wierciszewski 1-4, 2B
Point Boro Stats
Paul Franceschini 1-4, 2B, R, 2 RBI
Nick Guzzi 1-3, 2B, R
Christian Aurin 1-4, 3B, R
Sam Collins 2-4, RBI
Nick Zbikowski 2-4, 2B