Baseball – Soto’s Game-Winning Hit in the 13th Gives Central Regional Dramatic OCT Championship Win
TOMS RIVER - The way the Ocean County Tournament championship game between Central Regional and Brick Memorial was going, Central freshman catcher Cristian Soto figured to make his first out of the game with the bases loaded and two out in the 13th inning, just so the Baseball Gods could squeeze another inning out of the game that refused to end.
But Soto was hotter than the game was long and with one last fruitful swing of his bat, a game that seemed endless officially became timeless.
Soto capped a 5-for-6 day at the plate with the game-winning RBI single with two out in the bottom of the 13th inning and the Golden Eagles - the No. 2 seed in the Ocean County Tournament - outlasted the fourth-seeded Mustangs, 7-6, to win a championship game for the ages in Ocean County.
"I just knew I had to come up clutch," Soto said. "I was confident. I had five hits in six at-bats so I felt comfortable in every situation. I just had to try to focus and come through for the team and it worked out.
"This is crazy. I've never hit a walk-off before, at least not to win a championship."
PHOTO GALLERY: Central vs. Brick Memorial by Ray Richardson
His walk-off hit was a fitting end to a virtuoso performance by the freshman backstop, who spent the first 7 1/3 innings blocking sharp breaking balls from junior starter Cam Leiter, all while continuing to reach base whenever he strolled to the plate. The only time he failed to get a hit or a walk, Soto reached on an error in his first plate appearance of the game. He then singled or walked in each of his next six trips.
"He is absolutely a guy we want up," Central coach Jerry Frulio said. "I'm glad I had him in the spot in the lineup that I did, because he came up in huge spots and delivered. There are times we take for granted that he is a freshman because we don't think about him as a freshman in those spots. We just think, 'That's Cristian' and he usually lives up to what we have come to expect."
If five hits, a standout defensive performance and the game-winning hit were not enough, Soto delivered, arguably, his most clutch at-bat in the bottom of the 12th inning. With two out, a runner on third and Central down to its last out while trailing 6-5, Soto scorched a single through the middle to tie the game at 6-6 and extend it to the 13th.
In the 13th, Central loaded the bases with none out, but Brick Memorial reliever Brandon Hulsart struck out two straight batters to reach the verge of escaping into the 14th inning. Hulsart, however, was past the 110-pitch limit for the game and turned it over to sophomore Brady Leach, who was the winning pitcher in Brick Memorial's 6-0 semifinal win over Toms River South on Saturday.
Soto took a breaking ball for strike one and was ready for the next one, turning on it with a line drive that was too sharp and too far out of the reach of third baseman Anthony Martino. The ball found grass in left field and junior Shane Sajewicz stormed home with the winning run to set off the celebration.
"No matter who was pitching to me, I was seeing first-pitch breaking ball almost every time," Soto said. "When (Leach) came in, I knew I was getting the curveball first pitch. When he threw it and I took it inside, I looked for it again, I got it and I hit it."
Brick Memorial held two leads in extra innings, scoring twice in the top of the 11th inning to go up 5-3. Senior Joe Gioia hit the first of his two go-ahead RBI hits in extra innings in the 11th - a double that scored Max Cala to make the score 4-3. Senior Cole Manfro - who started the game on the mound and lasted 6 1/3 innings - added an RBI single for insurance that proved to be critical.
In the bottom of the 11th, sophomore Dom Masino came through with a one-out, two-run double to the gap in left-centerfield to tie the game at 5-5. The swing was retribution for Masino, who committed a mental error in the top of the inning by fielding a ground ball with no one out and throwing to second base even though there was no runner on first to set up a force play.
Soto also made up for a defensive snafu in the 11th, when he let ball four to Max Cala get by him - the lone ball he did not block in the game - and casually went after it as Cala steamed into second base.
"You just have to keep your head up and learn from it," Soto said. "Everyone is going to make mistakes and when they are mental errors, you just need to focus and make sure it doesn't happen again."
Gioia hit another go-ahead RBI single in the top of the 12th inning to put Brick Memorial ahead, 6-5, before Soto answered back in the bottom of the inning.
While Soto is a new name for the Central history books, his battery-mate at the start of the game already has his family name in Central's record books. Leiter was on top of his game as well, particularly in recording the final 10 outs of his 7 1/3 inning outing. The junior right-hander gave up an RBI single to his counterpart, Manfro, in the top of the third, then surrendered a pair of unearned runs in the fourth, with junior Jack Flood picking up an RBI single to put Brick Memorial up, 3-0.
After giving up back-to-back singles to senior Reese Hackett and Manfro to open the top of the fifth, Leiter found his groove in retiring 10 of the last 11 batters he faced, including seven strikeout. The one hitch in that stretch was a strikeout on what would have been the third out of the fifth, but Soto forgot to tag the runner after picking Leiter's breaking ball in the dirt and the bases were then loaded with two out.
Leiter responded by picking off the runner at third to end the inning without throwing a pitch in the inning following Soto's mistake.
After striking out the last batter he faced in reaching the single-game limit in the top of the eighth, Leiter had struck out 12, walked none, hit three batters and allowed one earned run on six hits to finish his season with another impressive outing.
"This is what I do," said Leiter, who moved to New Jersey from the Vancouver area to attend Central last year and is in his first year of high-school baseball in the U.S. "I want to pitch in big games and this is one of the bigger games I have been a part of, if not the biggest. This is why I wanted to play here, to play at the Jersey Shore, to play high-school baseball. I have played on some really talented teams and some really good competition but the atmosphere is something totally different in games like this. It's awesome and to be a part of a game this, it's just crazy."
Part of a family lineage that begins at Central and stretched out into Major League Baseball with his uncles, Al and Mark Leiter, Cam is the first Leiter to pitch at Central since Al Leiter wrapped up his legendary career with the Golden Eagles in 1984 and was drafted by the New York Yankees.
Al was in attendance for most of Wednesday night's game while Cam's father, Kurt - also a dominant pitcher at Central who played at Oklahoma State and reached as high as Double-A ball - watched closely from the dugout as Central's pitching coach.
"Pretty much all of our coaches are alumni, so this program means a lot to them," Leiter said. "It's just a special feeling to be able to win this tournament and put Central baseball back on the map. There are a lot of people who care about this program and we just want to make them proud."
There were times on Wednesday that Cam resembled his uncle in the way he demonstratively shook at Soto's signs and communicated with his catcher. According to Cam Leiter, Wednesday marked the first time his uncle has seen him pitch a game in person.
"I talk to Al a lot and he's been great helping me with the mental side of pitching, which is where he's so knowledgeable," Leiter said. "It's great to have his support, not just for me but for all of the guys on the team. For everything he has accomplished, he still remembers his time at Central and he wants to see this program succeed."
When it comes to Central Regional in the Ocean County Tournament, there are always connections given the Golden Eagles history and the namesake of the tournament. The Al Kunzman Ocean County Tournament is named for the former head coach at Central, for whom Frulio played before later becoming the head coach himself.
"This is a special tournament for me and for this team and it's because of the name on this trophy," Frulio said, referring to Kunzman. "He is Central baseball. I was fortunate enough to get to play for him and for everybody else who did, this trophy means something, which is why this is such an incredible night and an incredible way to win a championship.
Kunzman led Central to five OCT championships during his career and Central also won a sixth OCT championship under John Scran - now the athletic director at Central - in 2014. Wednesday marked the first OCT championship for Frulio, who gained a measure of belated revenge on Brick Memorial with Wednesday's win. When Frulio was a star at Central, Brick Memorial defeated the Golden Eagles in the 1990 Ocean County Tournament final, also in extra innings.
"It's nothing personal against their team and (current Brick Memorial head coach) Evan (Rizzitello), but we lost to Brick Memorial in the 1990 championship in extra innings and that loss still stings," Frulio said. "That makes tonight even sweeter and this win is for all the guys on that team. It took a while, but we were able to get a little bit of revenge."
Central 7, Brick Memorial 6 (13 Innings)
|Brick Mem (17-12)||0||0||1||2||0||2||1||0||6||15||3|
|Brandon Hulsart (L, 6-1)||6.1||9||4||4||6||8||113|
|Connor Shea (W, 5-1)||5.2||9||3||3||4||5||87|
|Brick Memorial||Game Stats|
|Cole Manfro||5-7, 2 RBI|
|Joe Gioia||3-6, 2B, R, 2 RBI, SB|
|Brandon Hulsart||2-3, 2B, R|
|Anthony Martino||2-6, R|
|Max Cala||1-5, 3 R|
|Jack Flood||1-3, RBI|
|Cristian Soto||5-6, 2 RBI|
|Dom Masino||1-4, 2B, R, 2 RBI|
|Anthony Musso||2-7, 3B, R, RBI|
|Shane Sajewicz||2-7, R|
|Trevor Coltenback||2-5, R, RBI|
|Cam Leiter||1-5, R|