MIDDLETOWN -- The throng of Major League scouts behind the backstop of Christian Brothers Academy’s baseball field on Monday were not there to see Manalapan senior pitcher Kevin Rusinak and that throng cleared out well before the game between the Braves and CBA was decided.

Rusinak and Manalapan did not travel to CBA to impress the scouts but rather to beat the flame-throwing right-hander they were there to watch.

Rusinak matched Wake Forest commit Chris Levonas for five innings on the mound and senior Joe Dionisio delivered the big swing in the form of a pinch-hit RBI double in the fifth inning and Manalapan – the No. 11 team in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings -- knocked off No. 1 CBA and its ace, 3-1.

The scouts mostly put their radar guns away when Rusniak took the mound, but he made CBA take notice with another strong outing. The senior right-hander pitched into the sixth inning, finishing with one unearned run on five hits, two walks and six strikeouts in five innings.

"From the time I found out I was pitching here, I just told myself there are going to be guys watching you, but just pitch your game," Rusinak said. "They are here for Chris, not me. Just put on a show, try to block everything out and make it just me and the catcher. That's what we did all game.

"I love this type of environment, where we are going to battle for a win. I knew it was going to be low-scoring so I had to do whatever I could to minimize their runs and I pretty much did that. It's a great overall win. We're so pumped."

Manalapan did not technically hand Levonas his first loss of the season Monday, but when the Colts ace left the mound after 4 2/3 innings and 72 pitches, Manalapan led on the scoreboard, 1-0, thanks to Dionisio.

With one out in the fifth and Levonas still working on a no-hitter, Manalapan sophomore catcher Robert Cruz drew a five-pitch walk against Levonas and gave way to senior courtesy runner Nick Marcello. After summoning Marcello to pinch run, Manalapan coach Brian Boyce called on Dionisio – one of Manalapan’s top three pitchers – to pinch hit and the senior quickly fell behind in the count, 0-2.

Levonas attempted to overpower Dionisio with a fastball and the senior was ready. Dionisio scalded a line drive into the right-centerfield gap and it skipped all the way to the fence, allowing Marcello to race all the way home from first base with the first run of the game.

"Joe has a quick bat," Boyce said. "I knew the ball would get on him quick, so he doesn't have to think all that much. He's a free-swinger, so I think it was a good match-up for him and he put a good barrel on it."

After surrendering his first run of the season, Levonas regrouped by striking out the next batter, then turned the ball over to senior right-hander Bobby Johnson. After Johnson retired the first batter he faced, Levonas’s day was officially over with one earned run on one hit, two walks and 11 strikeouts over his 4 2/3 innings of work.

"We knew it was going to be a low-scoring game if we were going to be in the game," Boyce said. "Kevin did a tremendous job keeping them off-balance. All the pressure was on (CBA). We didn't have any pressure on us. Our expectation was we know what (Levonas) is capable of doing to us. The fact that we got into the bullpen helped us a little bit."

CBA’s lineup got Levonas off the hook with a run in the bottom of the fifth inning. Sophomore Dylan Iwanyk started the rally with a two-out single, followed by a walk by Colin Hoverter and a single to left by senior second baseman Jaxon Sevilla that loaded the bases.

Rusinak was still just one out away from preserving the lead, but his first pitch to Jayden Matejicka slipped out of Cruz's glove and rolled far enough away from him for Iwanyk to score the tying run on the passed ball. Rusinak responded with a strikeout to limit the damage.

It was Manalapan's turn to rally behind its ace after he surrendered a run, albeit an unearned one. The Braves also mounted their threat with two out in the inning: Erik Johnson was hit by a pitch, followed by double down the leftfield line by junior first baseman Cristian Ptasienski. A walk to senior third baseman Varun Gabbita loaded the bases, which brought Cruz back to the plate. After he let a pitch get by him in a crucial spot in the bottom of the fifth, Cruz worked a bases-loaded walk to drive home the go-ahead run.

Johnson gave Manalapan insurance in the top of the seventh with an RBI single to score senior second baseman Chris Silva, who slammed a one-out double to deep left-centerfield to kick off the third Manalapan rally of the game.

After Dylan Reynholds beat out an infield single leading off the top of the sixth, Rusinak passed the ball to fellow senior right-hander Dylan Shaffer, who retired each of the six batters he faced to earn the save.

"He was on four-days rest," Boyce said of the decision to give Shaffer the ball. "He is capable and we had the lead at that point. This was a big game so we felt like it was the right time to go for it there."

Outside of Cruz's passed ball, Manalapan's defense was stellar on Monday. Senior shortstop John Pecoraro made a nifty backhand stop and throw from the hole for the first out of the game and also snared a line drive with a diving catching later in the game. Silva and Pecoraro turned a crucial inning-ending double-play to strand runners at the corners in the second inning. Pecoraro also handled the first two outs of the seventh inning.

After Rusniak walked the leadoff man in the fourth, Cruz quickly erased Reynholds by throwing him out on an attempted steal.

"We have good pitching and when we get good defense like that, we got some timely hits, we're pretty good," Boyce said.

As sharp as Rusinak and the defense were early on, the Braves were completely overwhelmed by Levonas during the first turn through the lineup. Johnson hit a line drive that Iwanyk grabbed out of the air for the final out of the first inning and that was the only quality contact vs. Levonas through the first four innings and the close to the only contact, period. The CBA right-hander retired the first nine batters he faced in order with seven strikeouts and several ugly swings from Manalapan's hitters.

Although Manalapan did not score in the fourth inning, the Braves got their first base-runner in the form of an eight-pitch walk by Pecoraro to lead off the inning. Levonas retired the next three batters, but needed 23 pitches to work through the inning after needing just 34 to complete the first three.

"We were over-swinging," Boyce said of Manalapan's early at-bats vs. Levonas. "He's going to supply the power. If we're swinging harder, then our mechanics go out the window: we're falling down, we're flailing and we're looking bad. I think the guys understood that, we were patient and the big thing was Kevin kept us in the game."

Manalapan's win over CBA came four days after the Colts pounded the Braves, 12-3, in a game started by Dionisio and called after five innings due to poor field conditions resulting from rain.

After a disappointing 8-17-1 season a year ago, Manalapan is off to a 4-3 start to 2024 and has shown major improvement on its pitching staff, particularly Shaffer and Rusinak. Shaffer is a University of Maine commit coming off a junior season in which he posted a 5.88 ERA with 21 walks in 25 innings. So far this season, Shaffer has regained his form, posting 2.69 ERA with 21 strikeouts and three walks in 13 innings while facing Old Bridge, Howell and CBA -- all on the road.

In 12 innings this season, Rusinak has yet to allow an earned run. He pitched a two-hitter in a 3-1 win over Colts Neck in his first start and was equally sharp in his second start on Monday.

Current St. John's freshman Cristian Bernardini carried the Manalapan offense last season and the Braves have responded with a well-rounded lineup anchored thus far by Johnson and Ptasienski in the middle of it. After picking up another RBI hit on Monday, Johnson is hitting .526 (10-for-19) with a double, home run and 11 RBI in seven games. Ptasienski is at .375 (6-for-16) with three doubles, a home run and three RBI while posting a team-high .750 slugging percentage.

"We're going to battle all year," Boyce said. "The A North division is a nightmare, but we have some arms that can keep us in games. We have to get some more timely hits and play good defense."

Box Score

Manalapan 3, CBA 1

Manalapan (4-3, 4-2)0000111340
CBA (2-2, 2-1)0000100151


Kevin Rusinak (W, 2-0)55102682
Dylan Shaffer (SV, 1)20000113
Chris Levonas4.211121172
Bobby Johnson (L, 0-1)1.11112026
Shane Langan12110117

Top Hitters

ManalapanGame Stats
Erik Johnson1-3, HBP, R, RBI
Chris Silva1-2, 2B, R
Joe Dionisio1-1, 2B, RBI
Cristian Ptasienski1-3, 2B
CBAGame Stats
Dylan Iwanyk1-3, R
Danny Tsimbinos1-3, 2B
Dylan Reynholds1-2, BB
Jaxon Sevilla1-2




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