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MIDDLETOWN - Ryan McCabe took the head varsity baseball coach position at Middletown North ahead of the 2019 season expecting to be giving the ball to hard-throwing right-hander Danny Frontera once per week and perhaps even twice per week on occasion.

Before he could even get settled into the job, he got a phone call that changed those plans. In October of 2018, ahead of his sophomore season, Frontera needed Tommy John Surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. He would not pitch in 2019.

With 2019 a lost season to injury and 2020 lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Frontera returned as one of the Shore's top pitchers but without a track record to show it. That track record is quickly expanding early in his senior season and on Tuesday against Howell - the No. 7 team in the Shore Sports Network - he added an important benchmark to his career.

For the first time as a high-school player, Frontera pitched a seven-inning complete game, powering the No. 3 Lions to a 5-4 win over Howell Tuesday to improve Middletown North's season-opening winning streak to seven.

"This is my first time pitching seven innings in a while," Frontera said. "Since Tommy John."

Middletown North senior Danny Frontera. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Middletown North senior Danny Frontera. (Photo by Matt Manley)

While Frontera went longer in Tuesday's start than he ever had before, it was the least dominant of his three starts during the 2021 season. The Seton Hall commit struck out double-digits in each of his first two starts, including an eye-popping 17 in six innings against Long Branch last week, but Howell made Middletown North's defense work and Frontera have to adjust.

"I knew going in they had really good hitters throughout the lineup," Frontera said. "I didn't really have my curveball today so I pretty much let my defense do their thing out there. I had to attack with the fastball and they hit me pretty good but my outfielders did pretty good, I thought."

Early on in the game, Frontera struggled to find the feel for his curveball, which he attributed to a slight cut along the nail line on his right index finger. Howell made hard contact on Frontera's fastball during that stretch, scoring an unearned run in the first inning on an RBI single by senior second baseman Chris Ellison and plating three more in the top of the third - keyed by a RBI triple by Rebels senior centerfielder Antonio Gatti on a scalding line drive to right field.

Middletown North gave Frontera a moral boost by answering right back with three runs of its own in the bottom of the third to tie the game at 4-4, with Frontera chasing in one of the runs with an RBI infield single and Howell aiding the cause by committing a pair of errors during the rally.

"He is a kid that does everything well and does everything the right way," McCabe said of Frontera. "When he had Tommy John, he fought his way back to DH that season even though he couldn't throw. For the younger guys, for the seniors, he is the model for what we want them to do day in and day out."

Errors would plague Howell senior starter Vin Impresa, who also hurt himself with three walks and two hit batters. Three of those five free passes came around to score.

Sophomore Ryan Frontera scored the tying run in the third on a bizarre play. With runners on first and second, senior Colin Dowlen hit a ground ball to third baseman Daniel Furlong, who fielded it cleanly and tagged third base for the second out of the inning.

Furlong threw the ball across the diamond in search of an inning-ending double play and while the throw took first baseman Nick Gomes slightly up the line, he was still in position to make the tag.

Upon applying the tag, however, Gomes's collision with Dowlen knocked his glove off the the ball went flying toward second base. The dislodged ball made Dowlen safe and gave Ryan Frontera time enough to speed into the third, round the bag, and score just ahead of a tag by Howell catcher Nick Todisco.

"When my brother scored, the adrenaline in the dugout just kicked in," Danny Frontera said.

On top of his pitching performance and RBI single, Danny Frontera also led off the winning rally with a walk and scored when Dowlen's ground ball to third base took a funny hop past Furlong and into left field. Ryan Frontera singled in between to put runners on first and second for Dowlen.

From there, Danny Frontera employed the curveball that he found again mid-game and shut down the Rebels. He struck out just five for the game and two over the last four innings, but in those four innings, Frontera allowed just one baserunner and it was on an error. He also did not walk a batter in the game.

"We got hit in the face a little bit, we made a couple errors behind him (Frontera)," McCabe said. "We're used to seeing him strike out double-digits, but we had to do things a little differently today. He couldn't find his curveball early but when he did, in those last three innings, he was a different pitcher then."

Pitching to contact over the final four frames also helped Frontera finish off his first complete game, which seemed far off after he threw 52 pitches over the first three innings.

Middletown North's 7-0 start to the season comes with the Lions not quite yet at full strength. Junior catcher Andrew Lombardi returned to the starting lineup Tuesday as a designated hitter after missing the start to the season with a hip injury, according to McCabe. It is not clear yet when Lombardi will return behind the plate, but McCabe said he is hopeful that it will be soon.

"I think we are really good this year," Frontera said. "Our catcher (Aidan Sheehan) has done a really good job back there. Andrew Lombardi has been hurt but I feel like when Lombardi gets back there, we're going to really take off."

Last summer, Middletown North showed its potential during the Last Dance World Series. The Lions dominated the pool play round by routing teams from Freehold Township, Marlboro and Christian Brothers Academy - all Class A North division teams - to reach the knockout round. That success came on the heels of a 7-16 season in McCabe's first year as head coach in 2019.

"These kids are into it," McCabe said. "It's hard to overstate what happens when guys are playing hard and doing everything the right way. From a culture standpoint, these guys just work hard. We're off on Sunday and there are five or six guys out hitting on their own, trying to get better. You can't coach that."

Even without some key graduates gone from the summer roster and missing a full-strength Lombardi and sophomore standout R.J. Kernan, Middletown North has hardly missed a beat. Three of the Lions' wins have come in one-run games and while their one-sided wins display their potential dominance, the close wins over Howell (twice) and Holmdel (in extra innings) might be even more encouraging.

"I think we're really good under pressure," Frontera said. "When it's a close game, I think we really focus in and put the bat on the ball. We try to do whatever to get on, even if it's a hit-by-pitch."

The Lions will be further tested in the days and weeks to come, with two games coming up against perennial Class A North contender Manalapan, with a game vs. Manchester sandwiched in between on Saturday.

"It only gets tougher from here," Frontera said. "We have Manalapan next, so we're going to get tested here coming up, but I think we're ready."


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