Baseball – Six “Underdogs” to Watch in the Opening Round of the NJSIAA Tournament
The NJSIAA Baseball Tournament opens on Monday and while upsets are part of a state tournament in any sport, there is a different kind of expectation for them in baseball. That, of course, ties into pitching matchups and – in the case of the Shore Conference – how the conference tournament affects how pitching lines up.
Monday’s opening round is littered with potential upsets based on who the road teams are throwing, including a few Shore-vs.-Shore matchups. Here are six teams – all double-digit seeds – with a shot to advance and six corresponding favorites that should be on their toes going into the opening round.
No. 16 Red Bank at No. 1 Hamilton West (Central Jersey Group III)
Ace in the Hole: Jack Povey (2-3, 39 2/3 innings, 2.12 ERA, 64 strikeouts, 13 walks)
It’s not often we see a No. 1 see fall in the first round but that possibility it on the table in Central Jersey Group III. Povey is a Villanova commit who just recorded his 200th career strikeout with his fourth consecutive game with 10-plus strikeouts. He will be facing a Hornets team that is 22-3 but got bounced from the Mercer County Tournament by a Princeton team that failed to qualify for the NJSIAA Tournament. Red Bank has been inconsistent offensively but if they can scratch across a run or two and catch the ball, the Bucs could do to Hamilton when they did to Ocean – beat the Spartans 1-0 with Povey leading the way.
No. 15 Middletown North at No. 2 Jackson Liberty (Central Jersey Group III)
Ace in the Hole: Sean Gardiner (4-4, 50 innings, 1.68 ERA, 43 strikeouts, 7 walks)
Jackson Liberty is the Shore’s highest-scoring team and now many pitchers – regardless of their accomplishments – have been able to slow the Liberty hitting machine. Middletown North senior ace Sean Gardiner will be among the best pitchers to try this season when he gets the ball in Monday’s CJ III opener at the cozy confines of Jackson Liberty’s home park, where the Lions are undefeated this year. The recent tournament games at Jackson Liberty have been absolutely wild – a 3-2 extra-inning win over Central, an 11-10 game with four homers vs. Brick Memorial, a 7-5 win over Southern and another 11-10, walk-off win over Colts Neck – and if Gardiner is on his game – as he was in a 3-2 loss to Manalapan in the Monmouth County Tournament – the Lions might add to that list of crazy games and at least give themselves a shot.
No. 12 Brick at No. 5 Colts Neck (Central Jersey Group III)
Ace in the Hole: John Wade (1-2, 29 2/3 innings, 0.94 ERA, 31 strikeouts, 8 walks)
This one is less about Brick’s starting pitcher and more about the matchup. Colts Neck has been a strong offensive team with a deep lineup throughout the season but inconsistencies in the pitching staff have limited the Cougars at times. Brick has a similar profile, but sophomore John Wade (0.94 ERA in 29 2/3 innings) has emerged as a lockdown option on the mound, with his most recent start a no-hitter against Elizabeth on May 11. The Green Dragons and Cougars are both likely to continue with a committee approach but Wade looks like a potential x-factor in a game that features two lineups swinging the bat well heading in.
No. 12 Monmouth at No. 5 Point Boro (Central Group II)
Ace in the Hole: Dante Ciaramella (5-3, 49 1/3 innings, 2.13 ERA, 75 strikeouts, 13 walks)
Unlike the three other candidates for a first-round upset, Monmouth has already pulled off a tournament upset once this year with its ace on the mound. Monmouth University commit Dante Ciaramella beat Middletown South – the current No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 – in the Monmouth County Tournament round of 16, 8-1, as part of his stellar senior campaign. He is coming off a rough outing at Howell in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16, but that is the only outing he has had like that during a 5-3 campaign. While most teams line up their No. 1 pitchers to start on Monday, Point Boro won’t have that luxury after Nick Guzzi exceeded 100 pitches in Thursday’s Ocean County Tournament final – adding to the potential for another Monmouth upset.
No. 14 Holmdel at No. 3 Manasquan (Central Jersey Group II)
Ace in the Hole: Jason Lyons (1-1, 28 innings, 2.89 ERA, 40 strikeouts, 12 walks)
On the surface, Holmdel has little chance to keep up with Manasquan on the basis of two blowout losses by a combined 23-2 during the regular season. The good news for Holmdel is Manasquan has yet to see senior ace Jason Lyons, who has turned in some memorable mound performances this season, including a 16-strikeout no-hitter. Factor in a capable Holmdel lineup against a Manasquan team that will have to make some decision at starting pitcher this week with Spencer Bauer unavailable Monday and the SCT resuming on Wednesday, and the Hornets have a puncher’s chance.
No. 13 Howell at No. 4 Kingsway (South Jersey Group IV)
Ace in the Hole: Bryan Bernard (5-1, 36 2/3 innings, 1.91 ERA, 42 strikeouts, 19 walks)
Howell senior left-hander Bryan Bernard announced his presence as an ace in the Shore Conference in his first start of the season, which was a complete-game loss at CBA. From there, Bernard has been an anchor for a Rebels pitching staff that has had to work around an injury to Ryan Bearse, who remains in the lineup as a designated hitter. Bernard’s last start was his head-to-head win over Ciaramella and Monmouth and if he can command his fastball and quality curveball on Monday, it could be enough to take out a battle-tested Kingsway team that relies on a balanced pitching staff more than one dominant ace.