Baseball – Middletown South Surges Into Shore Conference Tournament Final
MIDDLETOWN - Baseball, as much as any sport, is one that is said to require a short memory.
Strike out? Forget about it and get ready for the next play.
Walk a batter on a close pitch? Make the next one.
Hit a home run? Nice, now go play the field.
Lose a game? Get back after it tomorrow.
That mentality has certainly helped the Middletown South baseball team in 2021, and yet, on the back of their hats is a reminder not to forget one of the program's tougher on-field losses.
"Last year was very heart-breaking," Middletown South coach Chris LeMore said, alluding to the cancelled 2020 spring season due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We lost nine kids (to graduation) that were instrumental to this program and five of them were sprinkled in at the varsity level since they were freshmen.
"That's one of the main reasons why, if you look at the back of our hat, we have a 20 on there. It's for the 2020 team and we will have that 20 on that hat forever just because of the kids that they are."
Middletown South had an accomplished senior class ready to see how far it could go in 2020 before the season was wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID even ruined what was shaping up to be a special run in the Last Dance World Series in July, with Middletown South withdrawing from the tournament because of multiple positive COVID tests on the team following a walk-off win to reach the second week of the tournament.
As much as the 2020 class lost, that is what the 2021 team wants to seize. Even without a lot of varsity experienced coming into the season, the Eagles have played like a team on a mission and after Thursday, they are one win away from accomplishing a major one.
Sophomore Ben Schild and junior Evan Wood combined on a strong pitching performance and Middletown South - the No. 5 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament - beat No. 8 Rumson-Fair Haven, 5-1, Thursday to advance to the Shore Conference Tournament final for the second time in six years.
"We knew we had a special team last year," Schild said. "We definitely knew we were losing people this year but we knew that we would have a little trouble with a little less talent overall, but this group has worked really hard to be able to do what they should have done last year."
"We had that underdog mentality," Wood said. "Going into the season, not a lot of people knew us because we had so many good seniors last year. A lot of us were names that people didn't know but we play with the mentality that we are the best out there."
Before Wood took over on the mound in the top of the sixth inning, his swinging bunt in the bottom of the third scored three runs. With the bases loaded, two out and a 3-2 count, Middletown South's runners were in motion on the pitch and all three scored when Wood hit a dribbler up the first-base line, beat the play at first and moved to second when Rumson pitcher Jackson Hinchcliffe tried to make a play and threw the ball into right field.
"He (Rumson sophomore starter Jackson Hinchcliffe) made some good pitches to get back in the count and get it to 3-2," Wood said. "I was just trying to put the ball in play and make their defense work because they looked a little shaky in (infield-outfield warm-ups) and on a couple plays early, so I was just trying to put them to work. I put the ball on the ground, they made a bad throw and it led to a bunch of runs come in and it meant a lot, because Ben is a lockdown pitcher. He is one of the best arms in the Shore."
The RBI infield hit was one of three hits in the game for Wood, who took over with a runner on first and two out in the top of the sixth after Schild reached his single-game pitch limit. Wood gave up a double to Rumson senior shortstop and Monmouth University commit Andrew Schmid before striking out the final batter of the inning with a 3-2 fastball on the edge of the zone.
"I was just trying to attack," Wood said. "All my life, I have been a control guy. I'm not known for my velocity, so I trust my movement, I trust my velocity and I trust my catcher (Greg Trezza) to frame that well."
Wood then worked a one-two-three seventh inning to close out the win with 1 1/3 scoreless innings and three strikeouts.
"I always know I have to be ready," said Wood, who started the game at third base. "Early in the season, I was a reliever, then I transformed into a starter. You always have to be ready at all times, because you never know when your number may be called. I was just staying active, staying warm, doing bands when I wasn't getting ready to hit or in the field."
Schild was not initially slated to start the SCT semifinal round, but the postponement of the game from Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon due to rain meant that he would be eligible to pitch, which would not have been the case on Wednesday. The sophomore standout pitched a three-hit shutout against rival Middletown North on Saturday on 93 pitches, meaning the days between starts went from three to four with the postponement. Pitchers who throw 91 or more pitches are not eligible to pitch for four calendar days - a rule LeMore was familiar with but didn't realize would open up Schild as an option in this particular case until a conversation he had with an unnamed friend in coaching.
"I had my mind set on going with (senior Matt) Pontari until I had a conversation with a friend of mine and he made me revisit the whole pitching rule," LeMore said. "When I revisited the pitching rule and realized he was available for 110, he was going.
"I really do feel like holding him would have been disrespectful to Rumson. He is our best guy and to play in the Shore Conference final is an honor and I didn't want to look back on it and say I should have done this or I should have done that. He had a chance to go today, so he was going. Once he assured me he was ready to go, I was all-in with him."
Once LeMore knew he could use Schild, there was no doubt who would start Thursday's game. Schild labored through the first three innings on 74 pitches, but got through his last 2 2/3 on 38.
"I try to get strikeouts and overpower people and they weren't really going for it," Schild said of facing Rumson's lineup. "In the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, I just had to change my approach and just get weak contact. That started happening and I just tried to pound the strike zone."
In the top of the second inning, Rumson opened with an infield single by junior Matt Rigby, followed by an RBI double by junior Johnny Bruno to trim Middletown South's lead to 2-1. Schild then walked the next two batters to load the bases with none out, but responded by retiring the top three hitters in the Rumson order, including two with a strikeout.
"I know all three of those kids and I was like, 'Well, I guess this is the biggest inning,'" Schild said. "Just throw hard, throw strikes and hopefully I can get out it.
"It charges me up in the moment and then in the dugout, I have to regroup and get control of my emotions so I can go out and focus on what I have to do."
"He didn't have his usual command and when you don't have your best command, you really have to battle your way through," LeMore said. "To see him rise to the occasion there just makes me more excited each and every day because the amount of effort he puts into this season is noteworthy in that outing right there."
Middletown South jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first on an RBI single by senior Joe Stanzione and a sacrifice fly by Will Christopher.
Rumson-Fair Haven had the same opportunity to use a newly-eligible top pitcher on Thursday thanks to Wednesday's postponement but coach Owen Stewart opted to stick with Wednesday's plan. Charlie Jones beat Jackson Memorial ace Matt Potok on Saturday and was available to pitch out of the bullpen in the right scenario, but Stewart said his preference was to give Jones a full week to prepare, citing some high pitch counts and high-intensity outings in recent weeks for the junior.
With Thursday's win, Middletown South is set to play No. 3 Red Bank Catholic for the Shore Conference Tournament title Saturday morning at Count Basie Park in Red Bank. Middletown South defeated RBC, 12-10, in the second game of the season for both teams.
Middletown South also has a Shore Conference Class A North division game vs. Manalapan scheduled for Friday, but with Middletown South out of the running for the division championship, the Eagles are likely to gear up for Saturday. Senior Matt Pontari was initially tabbed to pitch on Wednesday and figures to be the choice for LeMore, although the first-year Eagles head coach would not fully commit to a starter.
The last time Pontari took the mound, he pitched a no-hitter against Colts Neck in the SCT round of 16.
While LeMore is trying to keep options open and opponents guessing, there is no mystery regarding who will be starting on the mound for Red Bank Catholic. Senior flame-thrower, University of Virginia commit and Major League Baseball Draft prospect Shane Panzini will have a full tank of pitches after closing out Wednesday's win over Manalapan with two dominant innings.
"We're going to talk about what we might want to do, but we also know what stands in front of us and how good (Panzini) is," LeMore said. "We had a chance to play them in the beginning of the year. We did not see him but we got to see what they are about and we're going to be ready. We're going to do the best we can and play as hard as we can and see what happens."
"It's pretty exciting facing a kid who is probably going to be in MLB in a few years," Schild said. "We're going to try to get a run or two and have our pitcher pitch really well."
"He is the best pitcher in the Shore Conference - there is no doubt about that," Wood said of Panzini. "He is a great arm. Just like we did against (Middletown North senior Dan Frontera), we'll just try to put the ball in play and make them work. RBC isn't perfect, so we just have to do what we can."
|Midd South (14-6)||2||0||5||0||0||0||X||5||8||1|
|Jackson Hinchcliffe (L)||2.2||5||5||2||2||2||59|
|Ben Schild (W)||5.2||5||1||1||5||6||112|
|Evan Wood (SV)||1.1||1||0||0||0||3||27|
|Rumson-Fair Haven||Game Stats|
|Johnny Bruno||1-3, 2B, RBI|
|Matt Rigby||1-2, R|
|Andrew Schmid||1-4, 2B|
|Charlie Tallman||3 BB|
|Middletown South||Game Stats|
|Evan Wood||3-3, RBI|
|Matt Pontari||1-3, R|
|Joe Stanzione||1-4, RBI|