HAZLET - One week prior to Tuesday's game against Rumson-Fair Haven, the Raritan baseball team was steamrolling through Class A Central and had its best pitcher on the mound against a division foe.

Fast-forward to Tuesday afternoon and Raritan senior ace Zack Johnston was back on the mound, only this time he was tasked with getting his Rockets back on the right track after veering off course last week with losses to St. John Vianney and Matawan.

Johnston not only pitched his most dominant game of the season, but he also came through with a key RBI single in the sixth as part of a 3-1 win over a surging Rumson club and Shore Conference wins leader Alex Burnett that boosts Raritan back to the top of the Class A Central standings.

Back-to-back losses to St. John Vianney, 6-5, and Matawan, 7-5, dropped the Rockets out of first place in the division after it looked like they would again be the class of A Central after some dominant early performances.

Raritan senior right-hander Zack Johnston. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Raritan senior right-hander Zack Johnston. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We started off really good and we got into a little slump," Johnston said. "We were giving up runs, the defense was terrible, so coach (Jeff Struble) told us to come out here with some juice and just get back to winning games."

"We had to take a step back and get back to supporting each other," Struble said. "We had to sit down and re-evaluate ourselves and find our purpose again. The season is a roller coaster - there are ups and downs and we had a down week last week, so we just had to get back after it."

Johnston struck out a season-high 11 and increased his Shore-Conference-leading total to 46 while not issuing a walk and allowing one earned run on three hits. He threw 71 of his 94 pitches for strikes and only two hit batters in the top of the fourth prevented him from tossing a shutout. He hit three batters in the game.

"Getting ahead in counts," Johnston said when asked the key to his start. "Fastballs all the time and then locating my offspeed. When I'm throwing strike one, I can get to my offspeed, the hitter sees what I can throw and then I can throw my fastball by them."

Rumson senior Robby Smith singled home the team's lone run in the fourth to tie the game at 1-1 -- Smith's 13th RBI of the season -- and the game stayed deadlocked until the bottom of the sixth.

A hit-by-pitch started Raritan's winning rally as well, with Burnett hitting center fielder Tyler Bruno to lead off the inning. After a failed sacrifice attempt, Alex Lamattina and Dan Vanmeerbeke hit back-to-back singles to load the bases. Burnett went to a full count against sophomore D.J. Dekis and missed outside to force in the go-ahead run -- the last batter Burnett would face Tuesday in his pursuit to improve to 5-0.

Dylan Avino took over on the mound and Johnston greeted him with a line drive to center for an RBI single.

"All we look to do is get the ball in play," Johnston said. "There was one out so I just tried to get the ball to the outfield so we could score a run."

Rumson put two runners on in the seventh on an error and a hit batter with one out, but Johnston finished the game with two strikeouts to strike out the side in his final inning.

"I just kept my cool," Johnston said. "I was hoping to get some strikeouts in this game and that was a chance to shut it down."

The Rockets got on the board in the second inning when Dekis hit a line drive to left field that was misplayed, allowing junior third baseman Jake Tennant to score from second.

Dekis was in the middle of the two Raritan scoring rallies out of the No. 7 spot in the order and Johnston delivered his RBI hit out of the No. 8 spot in the lineup.

Burnett made sure Tuesday's game was closer than the first meeting between the rivals, which Raritan won, 18-2 in Rumson's opener. Although he took his first loss of the season, he allowed only two earned runs on four hits and two walks while striking out seven. The Bulldogs entered the game on a three-game divisional winning streak to ascend to first in the division.

"It was exciting to go up against their No. 1," Johnston said. "It was a battle - just two number one's going at it and that's a fun game to play in."

Johnston's pitch count means he will not be available until Sunday, which is currently an open date for Raritan but could give the senior starter a chance to test himself against one of the Shore's top teams. The Rockets play at Freehold Township in the Monmouth County Tournament quarterfinals on Saturday and the winner will play on Sunday against either Colts Neck or top-seeded Wall.

"We wanted to get this one first, especially facing their best guy and trying to get back on track," Struble said. "We're expecting to see a No. 1 against Red Bank on Thursday and we'll probably see a top guy on Saturday, and our guys are starting to get used to that. They have really learned to take it one game at a time and that's what we're going to have to do this week."


Box Score

Raritan 3, Rumson-Fair Haven 1

Rumson (5-4, 5-3)0001000132
Raritan (7-3, 5-2)010002X351


Alex Burnett (L, 4-1)6.143227105
Dylan Avino0.2100008
Zack Johnston (W, 3-2)731101194

Top Hitters

Robby Smith1-3, RBI
Kevin Stant1-2, 2B, HBP
Zack Johnston1-3, RBI
Tyler Bruno0-1, 2 HBP, R
D.J. Dekis0-2, BB, RBI



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