Baseball – Matawan Proved Its 2020 Promise During Last Dance Run
For four years, Griffin Falco and his fellow 2020 graduates on the Matawan baseball team put in the work to have a big season for the Huskies by the time their senior year rolled around.
Falco and his fellow entrenched senior starters – centerfielder Jay Kalieta, shortstop Ben Porricelli and second baseman Christian Rivera – did not get a chance to take that final step and compete for championships as seniors in high school, but given three games to make their case as a markedly-improved team, the Huskies made the most of their opportunity.
Over its three-game stay last week in the Last Dance World Series, presented by RWJBarnabas Health, Matawan’s summer squad turned in three spirited performances with three quality performances on the mound, strong defense and a number of timely swings of the bat. The Huskies twice came within three defensive outs of knocking out Middletown South’s MS Baseball team that ranked No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 before losing in heartbreaking fashion in eight innings.
“I liked us as the four-seed,” Falco said. “We got to come in as the underdog with that chip on our shoulder and we knew we could compete with all these teams.”
Just to get to the seventh and eighth innings of Thursday’s game with a chance to advance to next week, Matawan had to overcome drawing the No. 4 seed in the Ocean Township Regional – the last seed among the four-team pool. The Huskies quickly proved better than their seed by taking out top-seeded OT Baseball of Ocean, 7-3, behind a sterling relief effort by junior Mike Caldon and big at-bats from Falco, Rivera, Porricelli, senior Ryan Anderson and Aidan Holman.
Falco was 2-for-4 with two RBI singles, Rivera went 2-for-4 with an RBI and Porricelli was 1-for-4 with a double and a pair of loud outs in his first two plate appearances. Anderson added a 2-for-3 day at the plate and Holman was 2-for-3 with three runs scored as part of Matawan's 12-hit attack.
Juniors Tim Egan and Mike Caldon were set to be Matawan’s top two pitchers in the 2020 rotation and combined to pitch most of Tuesday’s win over Ocean. Egan struggled with his command but still kept Ocean to two runs over 3 2/3 innings before turning the ball over to Caldon. Over the next three innings, Caldon did not allow a hit and would have finished the game off were it not for a hamstring strain that forced him off the mound and Rivera to record the final out.
“I’ve been playing with (Egan and Caldon) since I was eight and it’s been so much fun to watch how much they have improved over the years,” Falco said. “They were definitely ready to have big years and they are going to be a great one-two punch next year.”
It took only one pitcher to push Matawan into the pool-play-round championship and that pitcher was senior R.J. Clifton. Facing a young Rumson lineup that knocked off the Hazlet Renegades of Raritan Tuesday, Clifton spun a one-hit shutout with three walks and five strikeouts to pitch the Huskies to Thursday’s game vs. MS Baseball.
Caldon delivered the big hit on Wednesday when he cracked a two-run double in the top of the first inning – the only offense Clifton would need to navigate Matawan ton victory. Matawan put the pressure on Rumson throughout the game by avoiding striking out once all game.
MS Baseball had Middletown South’s complete 2020 roster, which was primed to be one of the Shore’s best in 2020 after many of those same players were key members of a 17-7 squad that won the Shore Conference Class A North championship in 2019. Junior right-hander Eli Gries-Smith was tasked with quieting the MS lineup and did just that for five scoreless innings to open the game.
The Matawan offense, meanwhile, struggled to make contact against Seton-Hall-bound right-hander Chris Lotito (15 strikeouts in six innings) but managed to scratch a pair of runs across in the top of the third inning to give Gries-Smith a lead. Gries-Smith helped his cause by leading the inning off with a single and after Kalieta walked, Falcon hit a towering fly ball that landed just in front of the left-field fence. Courtesy runner Dom Salot and Kalieta had to make sure the ball was not caught and only advanced one base, limiting Falco to a long single.
Salot scored the first run on a wild pitch and after a walk to Rivera, Porricelli hit a ground ball that was misplayed into another run. Lotito then dug in and struck out the next three batters to limit Matawan to two runs.
MS posted single runs in the sixth and seventh innings off Gries-Smith, with the junior getting a crucial third out in the seventh with the winning run on third base. After its starter got the game to the eighth inning, Matawan went to work with one out in the first extra-inning frame. Holman and Egan notched back-to-back singles off MS reliever Matt Pontari and moved up a base each on a wild pitch. Anderson then delivered a line-out to center that was just deep enough to score Holman, who slid under the tag at the plate.
Egan then strolled home on a wild pitch and Matawan went on to load the bases again with walks by Gries-Smith, Kalieta and Falco. Rivera then put together an eight-pitch at-bat but Mike Cowell scooped up his sharp ground ball to third base and tagged the bag for the last out.
Two days after closing out the win over Ocean, Rivera tried to do the same vs. MS but had no answer for the top of the Eagles’ potent lineup. With the bases loaded and a run already in, Rivera had to challenge catcher Anthony Esposito, who launched a 1-1 pitch over the right-field fence for a game-ending grand slam.
Despite the deflating end to the week, Matawan left the North Wall Little League complex as one of the uplifting stories of the tournament: a team with a core of senior leaders who missed their senior season and made up for it by playing at a high level for three games. They may not have had an opportunity to show what they could do over a full season, but the Huskies left little doubt they would have been one of the Shore’s most improved teams.
“I think having the season canceled and then finding out we were going to get a chance to play lit a spark in us,” Falco said. “You see how much emotion we have every single play, every single pitch, every single out. We just have so much emotion out there and that really helped us a lot.”