TOMS RIVER - The Toms River North baseball team had probably done enough on offense through four innings to beat Barnegat and its left-handed ace Jason Groome during Saturday's Ocean County Tournament semifinal.

Instead of sitting on two early unearned runs and protecting the lead against one of the top prospects in the upcoming MLB Draft, the fourth-seeded Mariners kicked down the door with five runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to chase Groome and stun No. 8 Barnegat, 7-1. Toms River North moves on to play the winner of the other semifinal between Brick and Toms River South at a date, time and site to be determined.

"I thought we'd score six today, so I guess they exceeded my expectations," Toms River North coach Andy Pagano said. "We have a really good hitting team and they had all week to prepare for this game. I really like where they're at mentally and I thought they'd be up for the challenge.

"Until you step in there against a guy like Groome, though, you just don't know. But I'll tell you what: he's as advertised. His stuff is filthy. But we made him work and made him pay for a couple of mistakes."

Seniors Joey Rose and Jeff Ciervo - the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in a potent Toms River North lineup that entered Saturday hitting .370 as a team - dealt the two knockout blows against Groome in the fifth. With two out in the inning, Rose waited back on a first-pitch curveball from Groome and launched it to the fence in right-center field for a two-run double that gave Toms River North a 4-1 lead.

Toms River North senior Jeff Ciervo touches home plate after his home run off Jason Groome. (Photo by B51 Photography)


"I just got my foot down early and tried to see the spin on the ball," Rose said. "I wasn't trying to pull the ball because I know he has a lot of life on his pitches.

"I was thinking about the fastball because he wasn't getting it over on the couple pitches before that and I thought he would try to find it. I just got my foot down, I saw the curveball and I put a good bat on it."

With the crowd surrounding Ryan Field still buzzing, Ciervo jumped on the very next pitch from Groome and belted a two-run home run over the left field fence to give the Mariners a commanding 6-1 lead.

"I just wanted to pick Rose up," Ciervo said. "He's been walking a lot, getting hit by pitches and everyone is always telling me, 'Pick your friend up.' It was a first pitch fastball and I just turned on it.

"It felt great, honestly. Turning on the ball like that, you feel it right away. Just looking at it, I saw it had the height and the adrenaline took over from there. It felt great."

Toms River North would add one more unearned run in the inning before Groome was lifted following the error that led to it.

"I didn't think we'd get seven," Rose said. "I thought we'd battle him and scrap for a run or two and whoever scored first was going to win the game."

Although the game spiraled out of control for the Vanderbilt commit and No. 3 player on Baseball America's latest list of top MLB Draft Prospects, Groome was one pitch away from escaping the fifth without allowing a run. After hitting center fielder David Cordoma on the shoulder with one out, he struck out shortstop and leadoff hitter Mike Nyisztor with a curveball and jumped ahead of left fielder Austin Feigin 1-2 in the count.

Groome's 2-2 changeup missed just high and after Feigin fouled off a 3-2 fastball, he laid off a low fastball to work a two-out walk and give Rose a chance to hit with a runner in scoring position.

Most opponents have pitched around Rose whenever possible - as evidenced by his 14 walks and eight hit-by-pitches coming into the game - but the Oklahoma State was afforded a chance to swing the bat Saturday both because of the situation and because Groome has no need to pitch around any high school hitter.

In his first at-bat, Rose reached on a single that was a towering fly ball to right that Barnegat right fielder Anthony Lani could not track. He later struck out on a 2-2 changeup from Groome, a pitch that Rose called a "Big League changeup."

In his final at-bat, Rose took advantage of a get-me-over curveball from Groome and drilled his 12th extra-base hit of the season to chase in two runs. Rose now has seven home runs and five doubled on the season and the RBI were Nos. 27 and 28.

Joey Rose takes a cut on a pitch from Jason Groome. (Photo by B51 Photography)

"I knew he was going to come after me because me and him were the main matchup today," Rose said. "I know he's not going to back down from the challenge and facing him was a challenge I was looking forward to."

Ciervo's home run was his first of the season and the first Groome has allowed as a high school pitcher. Groome overpowered Ciervo in his first two at-bats, needing only six pitches to strike him out twice. In his Ciervo's second at-bat, Groome blew three straight fastballs by the Toms River North right fielder, including a game-high 95-mile-per-hour heater.

"My first two at-bats, I didn't have a good approach," Ciervo said. "He was just throwing fastballs by me right down the middle."

Groome then tried to sneak a fastball past Ciervo on the inner half and Ciervo turned on it and got his barrel to the ball.

Despite enduring the rockiest outing of his high school career, Groome still showed the full arsenal that has him in the mix to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. His fastball topped out at 95 while it sat in the 91-93 mile-per-hour range and he threw it more often than in his previous start against Pinelands last Saturday. He also featured his full three-pitch mix against Rose, who is also likely to be draft in June in the wake of his huge senior season.

In total, Groome allowed four earned runs on six hits in his 4 2/3 innings of work while walking three, hitting a batter and striking out nine. He recorded eight of the first nine outs via the strikeout, but faced more contact in his final two frames as his velocity settled into the 89-91 mile-per-hour range. Groome finished with 87 pitches, 61 of which were for strikes.

"They were just hitting the ball," Groome said. "I can't do anything about it. This is probably the most hits I've given up that I can remember. I thought I handled it pretty good, but when they're putting the ball in play, you just hope you get outs and that didn't happen today."

Groome was the second Division I pitcher against whom Toms River North scored seven runs this season. The Mariners put up seven runs on Monroe right-hander and North Carolina commit Robbie Peto in a 8-5 win over the Falcons on April 17.

Barnegat senior Jason Groome. (Photo by B51 Photography)

With the confidence from having hit Peto and an entire rained-out week to prepare specifically for Groome, the Mariners came in prepared for another challenge.

"We were in the gym all week and we just turned up the Jugs Machine, moved it up 20 feet and worked on getting the barrel to the ball," Ciervo said.

"The message was just to get the barrel to the ball," Pagano said. "When you're a strong kid and the ball is coming in that hard, all you need to do is make solid contact. I don't know what his fastball got up to today but it looked good. That's a guy who could be pitching in the Major Leagues someday and I told the guys, 'You could be telling your kids about facing him one day.'"

Toms River North jumped out to a 2-0 first-inning lead when Nyisztor drew a walk, Rose hit his sky-high single and both advanced on a passed ball. Groome struck out Ciervo before junior Jared Bellissimo hit a hard ground ball to second base that junior Justin Diefenbach could not handle, which allowed both Nyisztor and Rose to score.

Barnegat had three opportunities to tie the game or take the lead but junior starter Brendan Mullins and sophomore reliever Anthony Sasso squashed both threats. Barnegat junior shortstop Aaron McLaughlin - who relieved Groome on the mound - led the game off with a double to left field on the first pitch and moved to third on a sacrifice by senior Collin O'Conner, but was stranded their after Mullins notched a strikeout and a groundout to end the threat.

An error, a single by O'Conner and a walk by senior Jared Kacso loaded the bases with one out in the Barnegat third and Diefenbach delivered and RBI single to get the Bengals on the board. Mullins then induced a fielder's choice ground out to Rose at third and retired Nik Caputo on a comebacker to end the threat.

The Bengals again threatened Mullins in the fourth, with runners reaching the corners with one out. McLaughlin then popped out to second base and after a walk to O'Conner, Mullins coaxed Kacso into an inning-ending fielder's choice groundout to Nyisztor at shortstop.

In the fifth, it was Sasso's turn to evade trouble. Diefenbach led the inning off with a single, then went to third on a hit-and-run single by senior catcher Max Ritner, who later moved up to second on a wild pitch with none out. Sasso responded by striking out the next two batters and after issuing a walk to Lani, struck out one more to escape with Toms River North still leading, 2-1.

"Mullins got in some tough situations and got himself out of them," Rose said. "We told ourselves, 'We've got to get this kid a couple of runs.'"

Sasso struck out six in three scoreless innings to save the win for Mullins, who allowed one unearned run on three hits.

Rain over the past week disrupted the tournament schedule, which leaves the scheduling of the final two games of the tournament uncertain. Toms River South will host Brick in the other semifinal, but the Indians have a game scheduled on each of the first four days of the upcoming week. Brick is scheduled to play on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and the Monday game is at Toms River South at 7 p.m.

The OCT final was originally scheduled for either Tuesday or Thursday depending on the schedules of the teams involved, but the strong possibility remains that the final will be pushed back if Brick and Toms River South can't find a time to play before Friday, when both teams have openings on their respective schedules.

Whichever team emerges from the other semifinal and whenever they do so will face a Toms River North team that has won six straight and is now the second-highest scoring team in the Shore Conference on a per-game basis, behind only St. Rose. Both, however, have defeated Toms River North this season.

"We had to rally around each other at the start of the year and get the chemistry going," Ciervo said. "We've really been together as a team the last few weeks and we're starting to heat up now."

Box Score

(4) Toms River North 7, (8) Barnegat 1

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Barnegat (9-9) 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 6 2
TR North (11-5) 2 0 0 0 5 0 X 7 8 2


Barnegat IP H R ER BB SO
Jason Groome (L, 1-1) 4.2 6 7 4 3 9
Aaron McLaughlin 1.1 2 0 0 0 2
Brendan Mullins (W, 4-1) 4 3 1 0 3 2
Anthony Sasso (S) 3 3 0 0 1 6

Top Hitters

Barnegat Game Stats
Justin Diefenbach 2-4, RBI
Aaron McLaughlin 1-4, 2B, R
TR North Game Stats
Joey Rose 3-4, 2B, 2 R, 3 RBI
Jeff Ciervo 1-4, HR, 2 RBI
Pat Marinaccio 1-2, BB
Mike Nyisztor 1-3, BB, R
Jared Bellissimo 1-3, R
David Cordoma 1-3, R