Baseball – Seniors Lead Toms River East Past No. 1 Jackson Liberty and Into OCT Final
JACKSON TWP. - The seniors on the Toms River East baseball team heard all about the winning tradition of the program coming up through the ranks, but up until Saturday, they were more familiar with terms like "laughing stock" to describe the team over the last several years.
On Saturday against top-seeded Jackson Liberty, it was finally the Raiders' turn to laugh - all the way to Tuesday's Ocean County Tournament final, in fact.
Nick DeGennaro struck out 13 for the second straight outing, Brad Brush hit two RBI doubles and Jay Longo blasted a solo home run to highlight a senior-led effort that downed the top-seeded Lions, 7-2, and catapulted Toms River East - the No. 5 seed in the tournament - to its first Ocean County Tournament championship game since 2008.
"We were tired of people looking at us like we are the laughing stock of A South," Brush said. "We wanted to prove we are winners and putting up a seven spot against the best pitcher on the number one team shows we're not a laughing stock any more."
DeGennaro and Brush emerged as a promising one-two punch of the future as freshman pitchers, but the potential never materialized into a winning season for their team until this year. DeGennaro was a Shore Sports Network All-Shore Third Team pitcher as a junior, but a light-hitting offense was Toms River East's undoing during a 3-17 campaign in 2017 that included six one-run losses.
"The first couple of years, we just didn't have the right mentality," DeGennaro said, recounting the start of his high-school career. "Last year, we didn't have a lot of wins, but you could definitely see the change in how we battled. We lost a lot of games late and this year, we have just been more prepared with a better mentality. All those games we lost in the past - we're winning them now."
That offense came to play on Saturday, tagging Jackson Liberty senior ace Matt Pickus with seven runs - four earned - on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings. Brush opened the scoring with a booming double off the left-field fence in the top of the first inning and DeGennaro gave himself a three-run lead before ever taking the mound with a two-out, two-run single to right field.
"With our team, you can tell when we're ready," Brush said. "Coming into today, I knew we were going to win. It helps a lot to have a good ace on the mound too."
Longo tacked on another loud run in the top of the third, when he clocked a hanging 1-1 breaking ball from Pickus off the scoreboard in right field for a 4-0 Toms River East lead.
Senior shortstop Ahmir Cournier got into the act in the top of the fourth with another double to deep left-center field to chase home Shaun Sullivan, who had reached on an error.
Sophomore Ryan Goodall ripped a single to left to score Cournier and Brush capped the Raiders scoring with another deep double to the left-field warning track.
"It was great to come out and get three runs right away," DeGennaro said. "It really takes a lot of stress off. It allowed me to go right after guys, throw strikes and pound the zone."
The loss was the first of the season for Pickus (5-1), who still managed to strike out six in 3 2/3 innings.
With a seven-run lead on his side, DeGennaro turned in his third dominant start in three tries after getting a late start to the season. On Saturday, the senior right-hander and Stony Brook commit allowed two earned runs on five hits, three walks and a hit batter over six innings while fanning 13 for the second consecutive start.
"The one thing I know about Nick from the two years I've been coaching him - he is a competitor, he is a gamer, he doesn't get rattled and when he's out there, I think our team really feeds off of it," said second-year Toms River East coach Keith Smicklo, who was an assistant at Jackson Liberty prior to taking the head job with the Raiders. "They play with a lot more confidence because he just brings that confidence to the field."
Jackson Liberty got on the board in the bottom of the fifth, when junior catcher David Melfi scalded a bases-loaded, ground-rule double to left to chase home two runs.
DeGennaro needed 20-plus pitches to get through the first (23), third (20), fourth (20) and fifth (28) innings, which left his pitch count at 101 after five. Smicklo gave his ace a chance to max out at the 110-pitch limit by sending him out for the sixth and DeGennaro delivered. He struck out Jackson Liberty designated hitter Billy Hart on three pitches for the first out and got a ground out on the fifth pitch of the next at-bat.
That left him at 109 pitches and with NJSIAA rules allowing for pitchers to complete the batter after the 110th pitch, DeGennaro retired Alex Torres on two pitches to finish his outing at 111.
"It definitely helped him (only having nine pitches left)," Smicklo said. "We talked to him before he went out there and told him, 'Listen, they are probably going to be taking a strike to try to get you out of the game. Just go out there and pound the zone.' And that's when he is at his best."
Senior Jared Mizrachi took over on the mound and pitched a perfect seventh inning on 12 pitches to preserve the win.
Saturday was DeGennaro's third start and first in which he did not throw seven innings. He pitched complete games against Toms River South in the regular season and Point Pleasant Boro in last Sunday's OCT quarterfinal.
DeGennaro missed the first three-plus weeks of the season while recovery from an appendectomy and when he returned to action on April 23, Smicklo and his staff eased DeGennaro in by giving him some at-bats and pitching him in relief. His first start was against Toms River South on May 1.
"It was really tough and thank you to my guys for starting the season 5-0 without me and picking it up when I wasn't there," DeGennaro said. "Coming back now and making it to the finals of the OCT means everything to me."
For the third straight start, DeGennaro also issued multiple walks - noteworthy for a pitcher who walked just four all of last season. He did, however, flash his dominance in the strike zone, striking out the side in order on 10 pitches in the second inning - the second straight start in which DeGennaro pulled off that feat.
The effort by DeGennaro and Mizrachi Saturday quieted a Jackson Liberty offense that leads the Shore Conference with 208 runs, which the Lions have scored over 21 games (9.9 runs per game). Jackson Liberty has scored two runs in a game just one other time this season, and it was on Friday night in a 2-0 win over Toms River South.
Just as the Jackson Liberty bats could not get going over the last 24 hours, the Toms River East bats have been hot. The Raiders fell behind, 7-0, Friday night at home to Manchester and rallied for an 11-10 win before making the trip to Jackson on Friday.
"Our bats are on fire right now and no lead is safe," DeGennaro said.
The Raiders will try to keep their offense locked in heading into the OCT final, which is currently scheduled for Tuesday night at Toms River South High School. The other semifinal game between No. 3 Jackson Memorial and No. 2 Toms River North was postponed until Monday. Toms River East went 0-2 against both teams during the A South season.
Smicklo said his choice at starting pitcher will depend on who the opponent is. Brush was effective in two losses to Toms River North - which scored three runs in each game - while Matt Santos suffered the first Jackson Memorial loss despite only giving up one earned run on six hits over five innings.
"We've seen both teams twice, so we know what we're up against," Smicklo said. "I really cant' say for sure what we're going to do until we know, for sure, who it's going to be.
"If anything, it fuels you to win, especially playing a team that beat you twice. It doesn't take a lot from us as coaches to get the kids ready. They know what they're up against."
(5) Toms River East 7, (1) Jackson Liberty 2
|Toms River East (11-8)||3||0||1||3||0||0||0||7||8||0|
|Jackson Liberty (18-2)||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||2||5||1|
|Toms River East||IP||H||R||ER||BB||SO||PC|
|Nick DeGennaro (W, 3-0)||6||5||2||2||3||13||111|
|Matt Pickus (L, 5-1)||3.2||8||7||4||1||6||84|
|Toms River East||Stats|
|Brad Brush||2-4, 2 2B, R, 2 RBI|
|Jay Longo||1-3, HR, R, RBI|
|Ahmir Cournier||1-3, 2B, R, RBI|
|Ryan Goodall||1-4, 2 R, RBI|
|Nick DeGennaro||1-4, 2 RBI|
|Aidan Meola||2-4, 2B, R|
|David Melfi||1-3, 2B, 2 RBI|
|Alex Torres||2-3, 2B, R|