Baseball – SCT Round of 16 Saturday: What to Watch For
If you were hoping to see a collection of wild, tight games in Wednesday’s Shore Conference Tournament first round, you probably came away from day one of the 2023 tournament disappointed to some degree.
None of the 10 first-round games made it to the bottom of the seventh inning, with only one road team winning (Shore Regional) and doing so with a five-inning, 10-run victory. Point Beach and Ocean had to sweat out the top of the seventh inning, but outside of those two games, there was not late-inning drama of any kind. Even Matawan in its 2-0 win over St. Rose had the game under control with its junior right-hander Andrew Gendi.
The tournament now brings the six teams with byes into the fold as hosts in Saturday’s round of 16. The bye is a particular advantage in this season’s tournament, which plays the first three rounds in only five days after past tournaments played the first three rounds in eight days. The condensed schedule means the winning teams that used their starters for more than 90 pitches on Thursday – Marlboro, Ocean, Matawan and Shore – will not be able to use that pitcher again in the tournament unless they advance to the semifinals or weather pushes the quarterfinals back by a day or more.
The games are coming and going quickly so let’s take a brief pause to peruse the eight matchups on Saturday.
Two Underdogs, Two Strategies
Ranney and Red Bank Catholic just played a classic Monmouth County Tournament final and as the top two seeds in the Shore Conference Tournament, the expectation is that both will be in Lakewood for the final on May 21. At the very least, both will be in Red Bank three days earlier for the semifinals.
Two teams hope to sink those plans on Saturday and will be taking different approaches in their respective pursuits.
No. 16 Matawan has already played Ranney twice this season and lost the two games by a cumulative margin of 29-8, with both games ending via the 10-run rule. The important footnote to both of those games is that Matawan junior ace Brandon Falco did not pitch either of those games and will be on full rest Saturday when he takes the mound against the state’s No. 1 team. Falco got off to a modest start but has been dominant over his last four starts (3-1, 0.78 ERA, 27 IP, 18 H, 4 BB, 45 K) – the latest of which was a 13-strikeout, two-hitter to beat a 12-win Group IV team in Sayreville.
Ranney has had its share of challenges from teams you might not necessarily expect to take the top team in the state down to the wire, but has always found a way to win. It will also help the Panthers that they can hand the ball to right-hander Nick Coniglio with left-hander A.J. Gracia also eligible to pitch after throwing the final two innings in Wednesday’s MCT final.
As for Red Bank Catholic, the Caseys will have to deal with No. 15 Point Pleasant Beach and while a very manageable schedule has helped, the Garnet Gulls are a 17-3 team that has a culture of winning. Surprisingly, Point Beach ace Kyle Kolans started Thursday’s regular-season rivalry game against Point Beach and will not be eligible to face RBC on Saturday. Over the last two seasons, Kolans is 12-1, with a 1.17 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 72 innings, with the vast majority of his starts coming in games outside of the Class B Central schedule.
No. 2 starter James Larsen is eligible, but after throwing 88 pitches in Tuesday’s Ocean County Tournament loss at Southern, he is only clear to throw 62 pitches.
RBC has been taxed enough that coach Buddy Hausmann gave standouts Alex Stanyek, Sean Griggs and Shane Andrus the day off Thursday vs. Middletown South. The primary question for RBC, though, will be how it handles its pitching over the next several days. Declan Leary is available after he pitched Sunday vs. CBA, but senior Dom Mallamaci is the choice as of Friday night, with junior Steve Svenson also available in relief.
No. 5 Jackson Memorial and No. 12 Southern have played just once this season, but given that the two Class A South teams have been challenging one another for the top spot in the division since the end of last season, it sure feels like they are constantly at one another’s throats.
Over the next week, the two A South rivals will indeed get after one another a lot and with a lot on the line. In addition to Friday’s Ocean County Tournament semifinal – which ended with a 6-3 Southern win in eight innings – Jackson Memorial and Southern will play Saturday with a spot in the SCT quarterfinals on the line and again, presumably, later in the week in a Class A South game that will have a major implications in deciding the division champion.
Southern will be on its sixth game in six days while Jackson Memorial got a day off on Thursday, but Southern got a huge performance on the mound from Tyler McLeod – a seldom-used starter during the month of April who has stepped up lately. McLeod pitched a complete game Thursday to beat Manchester, giving coach Ed Truitt a chance to deploy his year-long hurlers – Brady Lesiak, Steve Miller, Roger Dreher, Mike Nasti and Owen Durnien – for the remainder of their runs at the Ocean County Tournament, Shore Conference Tournament and A South titles.
Jackson Memorial played without catcher Aidan O’Donnell Friday after the senior left Tuesday’s win over Manchester with an injury. While not having O’Donnell or having him at less than 100 percent is a drain on the lineup, the Jaguars have a talented sophomore catcher in Tyler Huzzy to handle the catching duties. Jackson Memorial has been able to figure it out on the mound behind senior left-hander Anthony Mehmet, but two of the Jaguars losses have been games that got away from them with the pitching stretched thin.
Cinderella in the Blue Dress
No. 20 Shore was the only road team to win in the first round and in order to keep its run in the SCT going, the Blue Devils will have to figure out a way to beat a team that swept them in two games during the regular season.
No. 4 Rumson-Fair Haven indeed beat Shore twice during the first week of May, but the second of the two wins require extra innings to finish the job. On top of Shore already proving it could hang with Rumson, the Bulldogs have had some issues at the top of their rotation, with Jackson Hinchcliffe only recently returning from an 18-day shutout and John Goodes coming off a one-inning out on Thursday in which he gave up a four-run lead in the bottom of the seventh.
While the Bulldogs have not had as much certainty in their rotation, they have not lacked for quality pitching, with Matt Bruno, Cal Champeau, Owen O’Toole and Jackson Gallagher each posting an ERA under 3.00 in at least 11 innings. They also have demonstrated an ability to hit in the clutch, which they did in fighting off an extra-inning challenge from Shore last week.
Shore used Donovan Hughes to get through the first round, so Christian Simonsen figures to get the nod, with Jeff Barham and Robert Stock also options. Stock threw 76 pitches on Tuesday vs. Raritan, so he would be limited to 73 pitches, which makes Simonsen the likely choice. Simonsen is capable of keeping Shore in the game, but coming off a 14-hit, 16-run outburst on Thursday at Monmouth, it will be the bats that make-or-break Shore in its upset bid.
While Rumson owns the edge in available pitching and has had Shore’s number, Shore also just beat a pitcher in Monmouth’s Christian Zito that shut Shore down during the regular season. The history is worth noting, but Shore is an example that the slate is clean in the postseason.
Can the Hot Teams Stay Hot?
No. 9 Brick Memorial’s 9-game winning streak came to an end Friday, but we can all forgive the Mustangs: they lost to the only team in Ocean County on a longer winning streak. After a cold-water dousing in the form of a 14-4 loss at Donovan Catholic in the Ocean County Tournament semifinals on Friday, Brick Memorial looks to start a new streak at No. 8 Marlboro, with the winner expecting to make a trip to play top-seeded Ranney, unless Matawan can pull the upset.
Brick Memorial managed to keep both Nate Van Norman and Cole Cook-Benson eligible to pitch despite appearing in Friday’s loss, but will have neither Nick Garbooshian nor Chase Cohen eligible to pitch. Senior Mike Gioia figures to play a key role in Brick Memorial’s pitching plans and whatever coach Evan Rizzitello has available figures to be an option given that Brick Memorial does not have to worry about the Ocean County Tournament any longer.
Marlboro pushed ace Alex D’Ambrosio for 98 pitches over five innings to beat Point Boro on Thursday, but got an inspired two-inning performance by Alex Frank that only required him to throw 24 pitches while striking out all six batters he faced. Frank will be fully available, with Lawrence Elinson ready to start the game after throwing just 32 pitches Tuesday vs. CBA.
So far this season, Marlboro has run hot-and-cold as an offense and the Mustangs appear to be locked in heading into Saturday. The Mustangs scored 20 runs in back-to-back wins over CBA and Point Boro and will be facing a Brick Memorial team that does will not have two of its better pitchers available.
We are currently in May, which means No. 7 Middletown North is borderline unbeatable. The Lions are 6-0 to start this month after going 16-2 from May 1 on last season en route to a NJSAA Group III championship. This year’s Lions team does not have a shutdown ace like Colin Dowlen to line up, but the pitching staff has been dependable as the season has advanced and the offense is on fire.
No. 10 Ocean has not yet beaten a team from New Jersey outside of the Class B North division, so the Spartans will have a lot to overcome. Don’t sleep on them, though: Ocean has three good starting pitching options, which makes them a tough out, including on Saturday. Shane Garrett figures to be the next man up on the mound, with Matt King and Tommy Kowaliwskyj both ineligible.
Pitching Riches in Toms River
Of all the double-digit seeds still left, No. 14 Manasquan might have the most pitching. The Warriors have a Wofford commit at the top of the rotation in Cullen Condon and yet, there are four other pitchers on the staff with a better ERA. Jack O’Shea figures to be the starter in Toms River Saturday, with the senior boasting 47 strikeouts in 27 innings to go with a 1.81 ERA.
Manasquan also has a gamechanger at the top of the order and in centerfield with St. John’s commit Brett Patten and when he is wreaking havoc at the plate and on the bases, the Warriors lineup can be a handful with Condon also having a big year behind him. On the other side, Jason Basilicata will get the nod for No. 3 Donovan Catholic and while the short fence at the Donovan Catholic Complex will be enticing, it shapes up to be a pitcher’s duel – one that Manasquan has a real shot to win.
No. 11 Toms River East handled Ocean County’s hottest team a little more than a week ago when the Raiders swept Jackson Memorial, including once by 10-run rule. The Raiders will now turn their attention to No. 6 CBA and they will do so feeling much better about themselves, with Thursday’s 12-2 win over Jackson Liberty washing out the bad taste of a first-round loss to Manchester in the Ocean County Tournament and a regular-season sweep at the hands of Brick Memorial.
Toms River East has not had shutdown pitching, but the Raiders have some reliable depth that puts them in good position to compete on Saturday and into Monday’s quarterfinal round, should the Raiders get there. Junior Jack Mika is ready to go on the mound, while Brendan Lavin and Dan Nafziger have been very effective pitching mostly in relief.
After earning a first-round bye and wrapping up a division title early in the week, CBA has been able to set up its pitching. Junior ace and Wake Forest commit Chris Levonas is ready to go when called upon and Saturday is his turn to pitch. A potential showdown with Donovan Catholic looms on Monday, but CBA will have to get by the Raiders first. If coach Marty Kenney junior wants to trust the rest of the staff to beat Toms River East, Nick Harnisch could get the nod with Brennan O’Keefe also on call.
CBA’s offense has had a feast-or-famine element to it and with a fast start with the bats, the Colts could preserve some of that rested pitching. With the way Toms River East has played over the last two weeks, it is anybody’s guess which version of the Raiders the Colts will have to hold off.