Baseball – O’Connor, Sprake Outshine Ras, No. 3 Midd. North in Midd. South Win
MIDDLETOWN - Sophomore Chris O'Connor had never played in a varsity baseball game before Saturday but he quickly earned his varsity stripes both with his bat and his glove against a rival opponent and one of the top pitchers in the state.
O'Connor went 3-for-4 with a double, two runs, two RBI and made a crucial diving play at third base to back a shutout effort on the mound by two of his teammates as Middletown South beat senior right-hander and University of Alabama commit Tyler Ras and Middletown North, 7-0, to open its season.
"We came in really confident," O'Connor said. "We knew our pitchers would get the job done and we just needed to get them a couple of runs."
"I'm proud of our guys. This is a game I expect to win," Middletown South coach Ryan Spillane said. "It might be hard to understand that with the two pitchers they were throwing, but I emphasized doing the little things right and putting ourselves in a position to come up with some big hits and we did."
After going down as one of Ras's 12 strikeout victims in the first half, O'Connor made his first big play in the bottom of the third inning when, with two out and the bases loaded, he made a diving stop to his left on a ground ball hit by Lions first baseman Brian Quinn, popped up and threw Quinn out at first to keep the score 0-0.
"We just worked on that specific play (Friday)," Spillane said. "Getting him up to his feet and getting rid of the ball quick. It was pretty fitting that was the play that got us out of the big jam.
"He is another kid that's made a huge jump from freshman year to sophomore year and you can tell."
The sophomore later started the first scoring rally of the game by leading off the top of the fifth with a line-drive double down the left-field line. On the next batter, right fielder Dylan Walling dropped a two-strike bunt in front if home plate and reached on a throwing error that also allowed O'Connor to score from second.
Middletown South added one more run off Ras in the fifth when a pop-up by sophomore Anthony Esposito dropped behind second base with the infield playing in to account for the runner at third base.
"We knew he threw a hard fastball, so I was ready for that," O'Connor said. "He got me on it the first time, but the second time, I got him. I got my timing better."
The two runs turned out to be enough for Middletown South's right-handed duo of senior Joe Sprake and junior Robby Zega - both of whom dealt with ankle injuries during the preseason, according to Spillane. Sprake threw 77 pitches over the first four innings, during which he struck out eight and walked four while allowing just one hit. Zega pitched himself into trouble in the fifth by surrendering a leadoff double to Ras and issuing two walks, but the junior and Pittsburgh commit wiggled out of trouble.
Sprake matched Ras on the scoreboard for his four innings and his stuff was up to par as well. The University of Elon commit sat in the low 90's with his fastball, topping out at 92 miles-per-hour. The standout pitch, however, was his slider - a pitch that Sprake said he has double-down on during his work over the last year.
"I scrapped the curveball and went to the slider," Sprake said. "That's helped me put batters away. The key thing for me is just being healthy and keeping the right mentality every day."
"The work he put in from last year to this year is obviously showing," Spillane said of Sprake. "His velocity has increased substantially. His slider is nasty; he basically got rid of his curveball to go with the slider more. Just the amount of time and effort he has put in shows in a game like today."
Ras's day was done after the fifth, which was the only trouble he ran into on Saturday during a hard-luck loss. The 6-foot-4 right-hander, pitching in front of a handful of Major League scouts, threw 50 of his 72 pitches for strikes, allowed one earned run on three hits, and struck out 12 while walking none in his five innings.
Ras's four-seam fastball was clocked at 92-to-94 miles-per-hour during the first inning and was at 88-to-90 in the fourth and fifth during his first start of the season. Over the course of his start, he also got strikeouts with both his slider and his changeup and also featured a two-seam fastball and another with cutting action.
"Last year, I was really just a fastball guy," Ras said. "I developed my offspeed stuff in the offseason and I think it showed to today. I used the offspeed to get them off balance and it made the fastball look even faster."
"I think early in the season, your velocity is not always going to be there, but as the season goes on and you get more innings and the weather gets better, eventually you start to feel stronger. The stamina will be there."
Once Ras was out, Middletown South pushed down on the accelerator with five more runs over the final two innings against senior right-hander and Rutgers recruit Garrett French and junior right-hander Sean Gardiner. O'Connor smacked an RBI single through the left side of the infield in the sixth and roped an RBI double inside the left-field line in the seventh.
Walling capped the scoring with a two-run double down the right-field line in the seventh immediately after O'Connor's double.
In all, Middletown South collected four doubles and nine hits total against Middletown North pitching - including two All-Shore pitchers in Ras and French. No. 9 hitter and first baseman Chris Lotito also hit a double with two out in the third to give the Eagles their first baserunner against Ras.
Last year's opener and Veth-Woods Rivalry Game ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Eagles, who lost when the winning run scored on a dropped pop-up in the bottom of the seventh inning. This year, unranked Middletown South spoiled the start of a potentially promising season for the Lions - who entered the season as the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10.
"They were ranked pretty high, so that makes this a pretty sweet win," Sprake said. "It felt like a playoff game today."
"It's a big-time rivalry," O'Connor said. "We wanted the trophy back and we got it back."
Middletown South 7, Middletown South 0
|Midd. South (1-0, 1-0)||0||0||0||0||2||2||3||7||9||0|
|Midd. North (0-1, 0-1)||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||1|
|Joe Sprake (W, 1-0)||4||1||0||0||4||8||77|
|Robby Zega (Sv, 1)||3||1||0||0||4||2||63|
|Tyler Ras (L, 0-1)||5||3||2||1||0||12||72|
|Chris O’Connor||3-4, 2 2B, 2 R, 2 RBI, SB|
|Dylan Walling||2-3, 2B, R, 2 RBI, SB|
|Robby Zega||1-3, 2B, R|
|Aurelio Licata||1-3, R|
|Chris Lotito||1-3, 2B|
|Anthony Esposito||1-2, RBI|
|Tyler Ras||2-3, 2B, SB|