LAKEWOOD - Like every other player in Monday's Shore Baseball Coaches Association Senior All-Star Game at FirstEnergy Park, Monmouth Regional senior Paul Birzin wanted to end his high school career on a high note.

That is a slightly tougher proposition for Birzin given his standards: the highlight of his senior season was a five-inning perfect game in which he struck out eight of the 15 batters he faced.

Capping a season in which Birzin's best was perfection, the Falcons left-hander was indeed at his best on Monday night.

Birzin singled in two runs during his American All-Star team's four-run second inning, finished 2-for-2 at the plate and struck out the side in order in the bottom of the ninth to save a 4-3 American win over the National squad Monday night.

Monmouth senior Paul Birzin. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Monmouth senior Paul Birzin. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"It was a very good way to end the season," Birzin said. "It was all very fun. I was just very thankful to be out here with all these great players and great coaches."

Birzin smacked a single to center with two out in the first inning and later delivered a two-out, two-run single to left-center to cap the scoring for the American squad in the second inning.

After starting the game at first base and notching hits in his two plate appearances, Birzin went to the bench from the fourth inning until the bottom of the ninth, when he took the mound in hopes of protecting a 4-3 lead. The left-hander blew away the only three hitters he faced, striking out all three swinging.

"I'm not going to lie: I was a little nervous," Birzin said of taking the mound in the ninth. "I haven't thrown in two weeks, but it felt good to be out there. I was definitely amped up."

The perfect ninth inning was a dose of the stuff Birzin displayed when he pitched the only perfect game of the Shore Conference season against Holmdel on April 24. The Falcons won the game, 13-0, in five innings.

Birzin was a two-way threat on a Monmouth team that won 17 games and won the outright division championship in the Shore Conference Class B North division - arguably the deepest and most competitive of the six Shore Conference divisions. Birzin was 3-2 with a 4.05 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings on the mound and hit .386 with six doubles, three triples and two home runs at the plate. He also finished tied for the team lead with 23 RBI, posted a .483 on-base percentage and a .643 slugging percentage.

"I was really proud of all the younger guys who stepped up and the seniors stepping up and doing their job as the leaders," Birzin said of his Falcons team this year. "The leadership was the best in years, I think."

The perfect ninth inning capped a strong pitching effort by the American All-Stars. Neptune senior Justin Tucker started the game with a clean first inning and Raritan senior right-hander Matt Birdsall - who was awarded the Pitcher of the Year trophy in Class A Central Monday night - allowed one run in the only two-inning stint for the Americans.

Lacey right-hander Don Zellman also pitched a perfect fifth inning and Jackson tMemorial left-hander Connor Takacs struck out two around a walk in a scoreless sixth. In the seventh, Ocean left-hander Phil DeMarco loaded the bases with one out on a walk, a hit batter and an error, only to strike out the next two batters and secure a scoreless inning of his own.

Neptune senior Justin Tucker. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Neptune senior Justin Tucker. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Monday night was a fitting end to the season for Tucker, who was a significant part of Neptune's surprise run to NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final as the No. 14 in a deep, talented section.

"We fought so hard in states and it would have been nice to come out with a win," Tucker said. "It's great to come out here and have a chance to end the season on this field. Just to play one more time is a really good experience.

Tucker defeated No. 3 Wall in the first round of the tournament and he displayed a big-game poise on a Minor League mound on Monday.

"I expected our team to do what we did, but I wasn't expecting to have the success I had," said Tucker, who went 6-3 with a 3.11 ERA during the season, including 16-strikeout performance in a one-hit shutout against Marlboro. "But I'm happy I did."

Birzin's two-run single in the fourth followed RBI singles by Rumson-Fair Haven second baseman Connor Dupree and St. Rose center fielder Brendan Hueth. Dupree singled home Jackson Memorial's Connor Takacs for the game's first run and Hueth knocked in Red Bank Catholic senior Mike Veit with a single before advancing to second on the throw to third base.

The National club kept the American team off the scoreboard the rest of the way thanks to its pitchers stranding 13 total baserunners in the game. Point Pleasant Borough right-hander Tom Paul was the standout of the National pitching, as the Panthers senior matched Birzin by striking out the side in order in the top of the seventh inning.

Middletown North first baseman Mike Mercier struck the big blow for the National side in the bottom of the eighth when he clouted a solo home run over the padded wall down the left-field line to cut the American lead to 4-3. Mercier's blast hit the chain-linked fencing just above the wall, which was a home run in the ground rules on Monday.

"I thought I got enough of it when I hit it," Mercier said. "I saw where it hit and I saw the umpire (signal) so I knew (it was a home run). It was a good feeling."

Brick senior John Prato congratulates Middletown North senior Mike Mercier on his solo home run. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Brick senior John Prato congratulates Middletown North senior Mike Mercier on his solo home run. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Mercier returned as a senior this season after a successful junior campaign on the mound, but unable to build on it due to injuries in his right shoulder and biceps. Instead of fading out of the picture for the Lions, Mercier improved his hitting and delivered a strong campaign in the middle of the Middletown North order. He hit .355 with six doubles and a team-leading 16 RBI, but one thing he did not do in his high school career was hit a home run. He changed that Saturday by going deep and trotting the bases in a professional ballpark.

"When I couldn't pitch, I just worked harder to make myself a better hitter," Mercier said. "I was one of only a couple seniors on the team, so I just wanted to help us win any way I could."

Although the American side outhit the National All-Stars 11-6, three of the National team's six hits went for extra bases while the American team had just one extra-base hit - a double by Pinelands outfielder Tommy Madge.

Middletown South infielder Ben Porpora crushed a long double to the warning track in left field to start the bottom of the second and scored on a bases-loaded walk by Freehold Township utilityman Zack Pericone to trim the American lead to 4-1.

In the third, Matawan shortstop Tom Collazo punched a triple to the right-field corner and trotted home on a pop-up single to center fielder by Toms River South third baseman Ben Montenegro that dropped between Hueth and Dupree.

Veit and Marlboro catcher Gene Napolitano each finished 2-for-2 at the plate for the American squad, while Henry Hudson left-handed catcher Tom Collantino helped spark the winning side with a 2-for-3 game at the plate.


Box Score

American 4, National 3




Justin Tucker (W)100001
Zach Mann121120
Matt Birdsall221112
Don Zellman100001
Connor Takacs110002
Phil DeMarco100012
Tim Halasnik111101
Paul Birzin (S)100003
John Pudder (L)264101
Anthony Elefante110021
Dillon Pellecchia110001
Christian Smith110001
Justin Diefenbach110012
Tom Paul100003
Zack Pericone110000
Matt Stadelberger100010


Top Hitters

AmericanGame Stats
Paul Birzin2-2, 2 RBI
Connor Dupree1-2, R, RBI
Brendan Hueth1-3, R, RBI
Mike Veit2-2, R
Tom Colantino2-3
Tommy Madge1-1, 2B
Gene Napolitano2-2


NationalGame Stats
Mike Mercier1-2, HR, R, RBI
Ben Porpora1-2, 2B, R
Tom Collazo1-2, 3B, R
Ben Montenegro1-2, RBI, SB
Zack Pericone2 BB, RBI
Grant Hackett1-2
John Prato1-2


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