WALL TWP. - With 12 losses, a No. 14 seed and little success as a baseball program in recent years, the Neptune baseball team did not fit the profile on paper of a team that could be dangerous in a deep NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III playoff field.

On Tuesday, however, one of the Shore's most consistent teams over the course of this season found out why the Scarlet Fliers have been foaming at their collective mouths for a chance to shine in the state tournament.

Senior left-hander Justin Tucker turned in another strong performance and freshman John Gannon broke a tie with an RBI double in the top of the sixth to spark Neptune's first-round upset of third-seeded Wall in the Central Jersey Group III Tournament.

Neptune will travel to No. 6 Northern Burlington in the sectional quarterfinals.

"We had a lot of one-run ballgames this year where there would be one big spot where we'd make an error or miss an opportunity," third-year Neptune head coach Kevin Frederick said. "We told them coming in, if we make those plays, it's a totally different season for us. The postseason give us an opportunity to redeem ourselves and if we do the little things, some of those games we might have lost earlier in the season are going to start to go our way."

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

Wall entered Tuesday as a team on a seven-game winning streak, closing in on 20 wins and with a 15-5 record in games decided by three runs or fewer. Neptune, meanwhile, entered with nine losses by two runs or fewer, with its last three losses coming by a one-run margin.

On Tuesday, though, Wall played one close game too many and Neptune made the plays it took to pull out a nip-and-tuck game.

Neptune also rode two of its three pitchers who have delivered strong seasons for the Scarlet Fliers this season. Tucker picked up his fifth win (5-3) by allowing five hits over 6 1/3 innings - all of which were singles and three of which were infield singles. He worked around five walks and struck out the first batter of the seventh inning on three pitches after taking the mound three pitches away from the one-game limit of 110.

Sophomore Ron Cole took over for Tucker and after walking the first man he faced, induced a ground out to Gannon and third and struck out the final batter of the game on three pitches. Cole, who is verbally committed to play at Penn State, lowered his ERA to 2.40 in 32 innings while notching his first save.

"Ron likes to just go out there and throw," Frederick said. "He's going to be a very good pitcher as he learns to pitch and he's gotten a lot better, but he's at his best when he just reaches back and throws. With that mentality and with his arm, he could be a weapon for us getting the last three-to-six outs. He can start too, but with the tournament structured the way it is and with the two seniors in the rotations with him, he can be an x-factor coming in relief."

In his three appearances leading up to Tuesday's win, Tucker had been nothing short of dominant. In his last start - on May 10 vs. Marlboro - the senior southpaw struck out 14 and walked none in a one-hitter. The best start of Tucker's career was sandwiched between two hitless two-inning relief appearances against Freehold Township and Henry Hudson.

In the those three appearances leading up to Tuesday, Tucker posted 11 shutout innings while giving up just one hit and one walk while striking out 22.

"When he's on, no one really hits him," Frederick said. "He's a tough kid, mentally. One of the toughest I've ever had."

Tucker was not as statistically dominant against a Wall team that makes more consistent contact than most teams, but Tucker was still able to minimize hard contact while also working his five walks and one hit batter. Wall's first hit of the game was a bunt single by Shane Richey with two out in the third and the Crimson Knights added infield hits on a dribbler to shortstop by John Perrino and a ground ball to the hole on the right side that second baseman Rocco Richard stopped but could not turn into an out.

Wall put runners on first and third base with one out in the fourth thanks to a walk and an error. Catcher David Howarth then hit a soft line drive to Aedan Martin at shortstop for the second out. Wall starter Grant Shulman was then hit on his hand to load the bases, although the home plate umpire initially ruled that the ball hit the knob of Shulman's bat.

Tucker bounced back and induced a pop up in foul territory that Cole squeezed for the last out.

In the seventh, with essentially just one batter left to face before he reached the state-mandated pitch-count limit, Tucker struck out Perrino on three pitches to open the seventh.

"I asked him, 'Are you ready to face one guy?,'" Frederick said. "He said, 'Absolutely. I want the ball.' He wanted it and I'm not going to say no to a guy who's been with me for four years."

Wall freshman Teddy Sharkey pulled his team even with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Crimson Knights scored earlier in the inning on an RBI infield single by senior John Perrino.

With Howarth up with runners on second and third and a chance to give Wall the lead in the fifth, Tucker coaxed a ground out to Cole at first to end the threat.

Neptune mounted a rally immediately after surrendering the lead. Senior right fielder Dylan Taliaferro beat out an infield single and took second when the throw got away. After a pop out, Cole reached on an error, with Taliaferro holding at second.

Gannon then stepped in a smashed a 2-1 offering from Shulman up the alley in left-center to score Taliaferro and give the Scarlet Fliers a 3-2 lead.

"Johnny can hit," Frederick said. "He's been hitting into some bad luck this year, but he's making good contact. He's going to be a really good hitter for us."

Sophomore catcher Devon Furges doubled home a run to make it 2-0 in the fourth inning and plated another run in the sixth with an RBI ground out to cap the scoring. Cole drove in the first Neptune run on a ground out.

Neptune will send Taliaferro - another left-hander with an ERA under 3.00 - to the mound on Thursday against Northern Burlington, with Cole prepared to work in relief.

Wall will attempt to bounce back Wednesday when the Crimson Knights host Christian Brothers Academy in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.

"With our pitching, we have a shot to do some damage," Frederick said. "We've got the pitching, we have good seniors and really good young kids. They are great kids. They play with energy, they listen and they are all good character guys."


Box Score

(14) Neptune 4, (3) Wall 2

Neptune (8-12)0002020482
Wall (18-6)0000200253



Justin Tucker (W, 5-3)6.152255110
Ron Cole (S, 1)0.20001110
Grant Shulman (L, 1-2)5.18431264
Teddy Sharkey1.20000222

Top Hitters

NeptuneGame Stats
John Gannon2-3, 2B, RBI
Dylan Taliaferro2-4, 2B, 2 R
Devon Furges1-3, 2B, 2 RBI
Ron Cole1-3, R, RBI
Aedan Martin1-3, R
WallGame Stats
Shane Richey2-3, BB, R
Teddy Sharkey1-3, BB, RBI
John Perrino1-3, BB, RBI
John Volpe1-4, R


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