Baseball – RBC Continues Resurgence in MCT
RED BANK - For a team with expectations as high as those the Red Bank Catholic baseball team had coming into the season, a 4-4 start over the first eight games of the season could be deemed disappointing.
That's not how the Caseys players saw it, at least not entirely. Of course, they would like to have started the season playing better than they have, but the returnees from last year remember a fast start that turned sour down the stretch. This year, those Caseys would like to flip the script.
Since starting 4-4, Red Bank Catholic has won six straight heading into a pivotal week in the Shore Conference Class B North race. The Caseys picked up their latest win Sunday, when they beat Wall, 3-0, in the quarterfinals of the Monmouth County Tournament
Last year's RBC squad started the season 18-1 and reached the championship game of the Monmouth County Tournament, but finished the season by losing seven of its last 11 - including the championship games of both the MCT and Shore Conference Tournament.
PHOTO Gallery: Wall at RBC by Paula Lopez
"Last year we were 18-1 to start the season and then we went 4-7 down the stretch," senior third baseman Anthony DeRosa said. "We were 4-4 to start this year and now we're looking to turn it around and make this year the opposite of last year."
Although RBC returned five everyday starters from last season, two of them moved to new positions, giving the Caseys just three starters back in the same spots they were a year ago. One of those starters is senior center fielder Dom Caraballo, who has been sidelined with a back injury he sustained during the preseason, which he tried to play through in the first six games of the season.
Seniors Aaron Ahn and Aidan Supp both switched positions from a year ago, with Ahn making his second position change in as many years. After playing third base as a sophomore, Ahn moved to his primary position at second base as a junior. With three-year starter Evan Madigan graduating at the end of last year, Ahn again shifted - this time to fill the vacated spot at shortstop.
"It's been a good adjustment," Ahn said. "The offseason is when you do most of the work; that's when it really counts. I set my focus to work hard so when spring comes, it's just second nature. For the other guys who are playing other positions, it's the same thing: they keep working hard."
Supp played both third base and outfield last year and has played second base this year now that DeRosa is fully healthy.
With a new middle infield, and corner outfield, it took the Caseys some time to find themselves defensively. In the first eight games of the season, RBC committed 19 errors in 8 games for an average of 2.37 per game. In the four losses, the Caseys committed a total of 11 and also committed five in an opening-day win over Long Branch despite playing on their home turf.
"We changed some things up at practice to turn the pressure up a little bit," RBC coach Buddy Hausmann said. "We thought we had a good pulse of the team, so we did some different things that are non-traditional for us. We put the timer on them, put some more pressure on them working on double-plays and things like that just to show them where the mistakes were coming from and why they were a little slow in some spots."
That defense has since turned around. During the six-game winning streak, RBC has made five errors and has put together two games without making an error.
Sunday's win over Wall was a microcosm of the season for RBC. Junior right-hander Austin Nappi got into early trouble in the top of the first inning thanks to shoddy defense and a brief loss of command. Two Wall batters reached on errors - one on an errant throw by DeRosa at third and another on a dropped fly ball in left by Steve Turk. Nappi - who has issued just one walk this season - also hit a batter to give Wall a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the first.
The Caseys, however, recovered with a fine defensive play - a 6-4-3 double-play turned by Ahn and Supp in the middle of the diamond - to end the threat. From there, the RBC defense backed up Nappi, who fired a five-hit shutout with two strikeouts and 11 ground ball outs.
"I think the trust is really there now," Nappi said. "(The pitchers) are throwing to contact and we're getting a lot of ground-ball outs. That's when we're at our best."
Offense has rarely been an issue for RBC this year, even during its lukewarm start. Sunday's three-run output was the third-lowest total of the year for RBC, which had its two worst scoring games against Manasquan left-hander and Notre Dame commit Tommy Sheehan and Middletown North knuckleballer Chris Price, the latter of whom shutout the Caseys over seven innings. RBC also scored three runs in a 6-3 loss to Wall, so Sunday was the first time this season the Caseys won while scoring three runs or fewer.
On the whole, Red Bank Catholic has scored 108 runs for an average of 7.71 runs per game, which ranks second in the Shore Conference behind St. Rose (10.46 per game). The Caseys actually scored more per game during their 4-4 start (8.0 per game) than they have over the last six (7.33), which reveals a mostly-consistent lineup.
RBC's fortune began to turn on April 22 against a Delbarton team heavy on Division I talent, but also stumbling out of the blocks to a 5-4 start. The Caseys fell behind 4-0, but fought back to take a 6-4 lead on a grand slam by DeRosa. After the Green Wave jumped back up 7-6, Supp went deep for a two-run shot that gave RBC the 8-7, which was the final tally.
That game was also a breakout performance for sophomore Vin Bianchi, who has two wins in two appearances. The right-hander also pitched five innings in a win over Monmouth, the first start of his career.
"We knew we were going to hit and it was just a matter of our pitchers getting experience," DeRosa said. "They've stepped up lately and we've done a better job making the plays for them and it's made us a more complete team. With the lineup we have, when we throw strikes and play defense, we think we're one of the best teams in the state."
Ahn has been a force for RBC all season, batting a robust .615 (24-for-39) and hitting safely in 12 of RBC's 14 games. He's also walked 14 times and is sporting a .717 on-base percentage.
The Navy commit blasted six home runs as a junior, but did not go yard this year until he cleared the fence at Count Basie Park Saturday against Colts Neck. That first home run may have opened the flood gates for Ahn, who also crushed a two-run home run one day later in the win over Wall on Sunday. The fifth-inning blast to left field gave Wall a 3-0 lead on the Crimson Knights.
"Last year, I hit a lot of home runs, but I didn't think I had a great year," Ahn said. "I really wanted to work on hitting the breaking ball and I think that's made a big difference this year. I've been able to lay off offspeed stuff out of the zone more and it's allowed me to hit better pitches. I know it took me a while to hit a home run, but I wasn't too worried about it. I just want to keep hitting the ball hard and having good at-bats and the rest will come."
With Caraballo out, senior Connor Caizza has also stepped up while taking over the starting role in centerfield. He originally won the left field job early in the year and has hit better than .400 for the season. Sunday against Wall, he went 2-for-2 out of the No. 9 spot and drove in the first run of the game.
"Connor's been big for us and it's been a few guys who have stepped up over these last couple weeks," Hausmann said. "(JonMichael) Rotondo went 6-for-7 during one stretch filling in at DH. Sean Carver jumped into a game and went 2-for-3. We saw pretty early how much competition we had in the program, so I'm not surprised that guys have been able to fill in the way they have. We probably have three or four more guys who should be starting on a varsity team."
The Caseys begin a crucial stretch of games this week that could decide their fate in the Shore Conference Class B North race. The week includes divisional games against Wall, Middletown South and Manasquan before hosting Ocean in the MCT semifinals on Saturday. They currently trail division leader Manasquan by two full games and will also have to jump Wall and Monmouth in the standings in order to capture the outright division title.
"You knew it was going to come at some point," Hausmann said of the winning streak. "I just hoped it was sooner rather than later."
(3) Red Bank Catholic 3, (6) Wall 0
|Ryan Napolitano (L, 3-1)||6||5||3||3||4||2||79|
|Austin Nappi (W, 4-1)||7||5||0||0||0||2||79|
|David Howarth||1-3, 2B|
|Aaron Ahn||2-3, HR, R, 2 RBI|
|Connor Caizza||2-2, RBI|
|Brian Sheehy||3 BB|