Baseball – Middletown South Tops Manalapan, Eyes A North Title
MIDDLETOWN - Friday's rematch with Manalapan - the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - was a game of redemption for Middletown South junior Chris Lotito and with his pitching performance in relief, plus a huge game from senior teammate Robby Zega, the Eagles are poised to complete an entire season of redemption.
Zega picked up two different go-ahead hits - including a towering solo home run - and Lotito pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief to lead the No. 9 Eagles to an 8-5 win over Manalapan to move within two wins of clinching no worse than a tie for the Shore Conference Class A North championship.
"Before the week started, we talked about what we had to do and what was at stake," Middletown coach Ryan Spillane said. "We said we needed to sweep the week if we wanted to have a chance at winning A North and that wasn't going to be easy with two games against Howell and then having to beat Manalapan, but our guys really welcomed the challenge and really rose to the occasion."
Middletown South is coming off an 11-13 season in 2018 and has played all but one game in 2019 without star senior and First-Team All-Shore shortstop Aurelio Licata, who is nursing a season-ending shoulder injury. Despite losing an imposing bat in the lineup, the Eagles remain one of the Shore's best lineups and those bats have allowed an ensemble pitching staff to pitch with the peace-of-mind that comes with consistent run support.
"We lost (pitcher and cleanup hitter) Joe Sprake from last year and that was pretty much it," Zega said. "We had everybody else coming back and we worked really hard this offseason and came together as a team. Even when we lost Aurelio before the season, we just tried to stay together as a team and everybody knew they had to step up."
"There have been a lot of guys that have really stepped up this year," Spillane said. "We don't do it with one pitcher or one guy at the plate. Zega has swung the bat well and he played great today. He is hitting seventh for us and he has really given the lineup a lot of length.
That offensive explosiveness was on display Friday after Manalapan jumped out to a 3-0 lead with 3-0 senior Aaron Ayers on the mound. The Braves right-hander entered the game with 0.30 ERA, 25 strikeouts and five walks in 23 innings, including three scoreless innings of relief in Manalapan's 7-4, extra-inning win over Middletown South on April 18.
This time, the third inning was when Middletown South figured out Ayers. Zega started his big day at the plate with a six-pitch walk to lead off the inning and eventually scored on senior catcher Trevor Brey's RBI single through the middle. Junior Danny Minze followed with a single through the right side to score a second Eagles run and junior Chris O'Connor tied it at 3-3 by ripping a double down the left-field line.
"It was still early so I knew there was still a lot of time to come back," Zega said. "We knew we had Lotito waiting to come in and we were going to get our bats going eventually."
In the previous half-inning, Manalapan threatened to break the game open with the bases loaded when Spillane made the call to replace sophomore starter Jack Shea with Lotito, who started the game in center field. He ended the threat on one pitch to propel Middletown South into its three-run inning.
"I have been waiting for this game ever since we lost to them the last time," Lotito said. "I knew we had the game coming up this Friday and I just tried to get myself prepared mentally. They are a good hitting team and they came out swinging the bats early but I wasn't really worried. I knew I just had to come in and keep my team close and we would find a way to get back in the game."
After getting out of the jam, the game now belonged to Lotito, who suffered the loss on April 18 when he surrendered a three-run, walk-off home run to Manalapan senior Mike Kuver after throwing 2 2/3 scoreless frames to that point in the game. Following Middletown South's game-tying rally in the third on Friday, Lotito marched back to the mound and struck out the side in order in the top of the fourth to get hit team right back up to the plate and set the tone for the rest of his outing.
"We knew we were going to bring him in whenever there was a high-leverage situation," Spillane said. "I let a couple slide before that but I was thinking it was too early. He came in, got the one-pitch out and then he was able to go to the bullpen and throw a little bit to get himself settled down. That was the most pitches he has thrown all year (77) so he certainly stepped up. This is the game he wanted."
Zega again led off the inning in the fourth and this time, he was swinging. On a 3-1 count, the senior second baseman unloaded on a fastball and launched it well over the left-field fence, admiring the go-ahead blast as he broke into his home-run trot.
"He was throwing me a lot of curveballs so I was just thinking 'sit back' the entire at-bat," Zega said. "Then it got to 3-1 and I knew he was going to come with a fastball. It was a little inside, middle-in, so I just turned on it and I got a good piece of it."
"That was a bomb. That looked like a Johnny Zega home run," Spillane said, referencing Robby's older brother and former All-Shore second baseman who is now a junior at Monmouth University. "He was amped up to play today and he really played great. I almost had to rein him in a little but he really brought it today."
Manalapan answered Zega's fourth home run of the season by tying the game in the top of the fifth against Lotito. Senior Ben Levine flipped a single to shallow center to chase home sophomore third baseman Tom Guidice, who finished the game 3-for-4 with an RBI double in the first inning.
Levine advanced to second on a throw to the plate on his single, and was lifted for pinch-runner Joe Mazza. Mazza got the wave home on a single to center by senior Billy Watters, but senior Jack Kinsella - who shifted from left field to center when Lotito took the mound - fired a strike to the plate to nab Mazza by two steps.
"That was a huge throw," Spillane said. "(Mike) Barbara made a pretty good throw from left just before that and it just short-hopped Trevor behind the plate so that was a tough break. (Kinsella's) throw was huge at that point because it gave us some momentum and then I brought him over before his at-bat and said, 'First-ball fastball: don't miss it.'"
After keeping the game tied, Kinsella would play a key role in the rally that untied the game in the bottom of the inning. Zega once again came through with an RBI single to left field to give Middletown South the lead and Kinsella followed with a long double to the left-field fence to plate another run.
Zega's single resulted in a bang-bang play at the plate that drew an argument from the Manalapan dugout.
The two fifth-inning runs were the first runs allowed all year by Manalapan junior left-hander Chris Nicol, who entered the game 3-0 with no earned runs allowed in 12 2/3 innings with 19 strikeouts and no walks. On Friday, Nicol gave up his first four runs, suffered his first loss and was charged with his first walk, although it was an intentional pass.
"He threw strikes, he mixed it up with his offspeed stuff keeping guys off-balance," Spillane said of Nicol. "He did a good job but fortunately we were able to get to him."
Middletown South tacked on a pair of runs in the sixth on a hard-hit ground ball by junior Anthony Esposito that took a sharp hop and hit Manalapan second baseman Jake Pellecchia in his upper body, allowing two runs to score. Manalapan twice opted to walk Lotito to pitch to Esposito and the second time, he made the Braves pay.
Lotito gave up a run in the seventh on Levine's second RBI single but closed out his first win of the season by inducing a ground out to short. Lotito gave up two runs on six hits in his longest outing of the year and struck out seven while walking none.
With Friday's win, Middletown South has put itself in position to win no worse than a share of the Class A North championship. All the Eagles have to do is defeat Long Branch (0-14) twice next week to clinch the co-championship and if Manalapan loses any of its final three division games (two vs. Marlboro and one at Howell), Middletown South would win the title outright.
Manalapan began the season 15-0 before losing to Christian Brothers Academy on Thursday. The Braves led the division race throughout the season's first month and within two days, Middletown South is in position to snatch the title from the team that has set the pace for the vast majority of the season.
"With almost everybody back, we worked out together all offseason and really bonded," Lotito said. "Our chemistry last year wasn't great and I think we came back this year as more of a team and the chemistry has been amazing. When you have guys supporting one another and playing for one another, you never feel like you're out of a game and that's what we felt like today and coming into this week."
Middletown South 8, Manalapan 5
|Manalapan (15-2, 9-2)||1||2||0||0||1||0||1||5||11||1|
|Midd South (11-4, 10-2)||0||0||3||1||2||2||X||8||12||1|
|Chris Nicol (L, 3-1)||2||7||4||4||1||2||48|
|Chris Lotito (W, 1-1)||4.1||6||2||2||0||7||77|
|Tom Guidice||3-4, 2B, 2 R, RBI|
|Ben Levine||2-4, 2 RBI|
|Mike Kuver||2-4, R, RBI|
|Nick Serrantino||1-3, 2B, RBI|
|Billy Watters||2-3, R|
|Matt Panzica||1-1, 2B|
|Robby Zega||3-3, HR, 2 R, 2 RBI|
|Anthony Esposito||2-4, 2 RBI|
|Trevor Brey||2-4, R, RBI|
|Danny Minze||2-3, RBI|
|Chris O’Connor||1-4, 2B, R, RBI|
|Jack Kinsella||1-4, 2B, RBI|