Baseball Top 20 in 2020 – No. 6: Manalapan
Shore Sports Network is counting down its top 20 baseball teams heading into the would-be 2020 season by profiling each one. You can read the division-by-division previews and the other top-20 profiles here.
Shore Sports Network Baseball 20 in 2020 – No. 6: Manalapan
The Manalapan baseball team made certain 2019 was a special season by winning the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship for the first time in seven years.
Since that triumph though, the Braves have faced a seemingly overwhelming amount of heartbreak and the current shutdown of the 2020 season is only the latest ordeal.
The Braves had the tying run wiped off the board in the Group IV final against Eastern because of what appeared to be a blown call in the seventh inning of a 1-0 loss to the Vikings – denying Manalapan a trip to the Group IV final.
The next day, the Manalapan players learned of the sudden passing of sophomore teammate David Korman overnight and had to play in the Shore Conference Tournament final the following day, which the Braves lost to Red Bank Catholic, 5-0.
An emotional 72 hours made for an emotional transition from 2019 to 2020 and now the Braves players returning from last year’s 24-win team are hoping for what would be an emotional return to baseball for a lot of high-school players throughout the country.
“It’s definitely a strange time,” 14-year Manalapan coach Brian Boyce said. “We’re so used to being around each other so not being able to be around the players and coaches is as somebody who has been doing this a long time, it’s definitely a big change for me. I know it’s tough on the kids too because they were putting in a lot of work in the offseason and spending time with one another and that’s all on hold for now.”
Manalapan would face a number of on-field challenges in a potential 2020 season given the quality of the seniors who graduated in 2019, but the returning group also made its impact last year on a team that made good use of its depth.
While a pair of starting infielders did graduate, Manalapan returns five players – including senior catcher Dylan Hode – who made significant contributions as infielders in 2019. Senior Nick DiPietrantonio slides from third base to shortstop, which he played when 2019 graduate Jake Pellecchia pitched. DiPietrantonio – a Princeton commit – led Manalapan in extra-base hits (14), home runs (three), RBI (30) and slugging percentage (.530) as a junior and returns as one of the Shore’s most dangerous bats.
Fellow senior Hunter Serrano is also back at second base, giving Manalapan an experienced double-play combination and two quality bats for the heart of the order. Serrano did damage closer to the bottom of the order last season and would likely be near the top in 2020 after hitting .310 with four extra-base hits in 56 at-bats as a junior.
Senior Kyle Sciallo played a part-time role last year but was one of the team’s best hitters on a per-at-bat basis, putting up a .407 average and .529 on-base percentage in 34 plate appearances. He is also a quality third baseman and speedy baserunner who scored the would-be tying run in that controversial seventh inning vs. Eastern.
“There is really good energy and good leadership with this team,” Boyce said. “(DiPietrantonio), Sciallo and Hode did good job keeping team together throughout the offseason and they are the guys trying to keep everybody in touch now. From what we saw, I was impressed with what we had positionally.”
Tom Guidice is the lone junior on the infield and after an impressive sophomore season, he might come into 2020 with the most offensive upside of any hitter on the Braves. He can also play third base and the outfield, which he did as a sophomore while also hitting .337 with nine extra-base hits.
Junior Anthony Matteis could also make an impact in the lineup at first base or catcher and could also catch on as a designated hitter if Hode and Guidice lock down their respective positions.
Offensively, Manalapan’s biggest overall questions come in the outfield, where the Braves are set to install two new starters. Junior Joe Mazza came on at the end of last season and hit .344 with eight RBI in 32 at-bats to secure the right-field job.
The Braves outfield would likely shake out as an all-junior outfit, with Ethan Rodriguez and Anthony Matrone starting alongside Mazza. Rodriguez played sparingly as a sophomore on the varsity team while Matrone progresses from the lower levels of the program as one of the better hitters in his class. Manalapan’s depth in the outfield is also junior-heavy, with Anthony Mauro, Gino Gambale and Chris Marzo filling out the depth chart.
“The middle of order looked pretty good with Guidice, (DiPietrantonio), Mazza, and then Matrone and Rodriguez. Rodriguez got a taste last year and is the kind of guy who we saw taking a step forward. Matrone was probably our top hitter at the lower levels last year. Then you have Sciallo and Serrano who can set the table and Hode giving us some length.”
Manalapan has a chance to be one of the better teams at the Shore when it comes to both scoring runs and catching the ball but the Braves’ chances in a potential 2020 season and also looking ahead to 2021 rest with the pitching staff. The 2019 rotation was led by the senior one-two punch of Ben Levine and Aaron Ayers – both of whom were Shore Sports Network All-Shore selections – and also got important contributions from Pellecchia and fellow graduates Rico Spinelli and Jake Melman.
Mazza, Serrano and senior left-hander Chris Nicol are all back after playing key roles in Manalapan’s deep pitching staff of 2019. Just as he earned at-bats, Mazza earned innings on the mound and was the team’s No. 3 starter by the last month of his sophomore season. Serrano and Nicol, meanwhile, were dominant relievers – Serrano locking down all three of his save chances and Nicol posting a 21-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.86 ERA over 16 1/3 innings.
Nicol and Serrano might be starters in a potential 2020 season but the Boyce has some other rotation options that could keep those two in the bullpen, where they excelled a year ago. Sophomore right-hander Tyler Kane was making his case for a starting spot in the rotation and could be a future ace for the Braves, as well as a contributor in the middle of the infield as well.
“In a perfect world, we would keep (Serrano and Nicol) in the bullpen because we know they are really good there, but we’d have to see how everything plays out,” Boyce said. “Kane is impressive. He is going to make an impact one way or another. Mazza got hurt in hockey and we expected him to be fine for the start of the season, but we had been taking it slow with him.”
Senior Marc Rivera is coming off an injury-shortened 2019 and had the look of a contributor to the rotation this year, perhaps as a starter if his arm held up through the preseason. Juniors Justin Simone and Arush Sood were lower-level standouts and making their way up the varsity ranks as camp opened as well.
“Rivera is coming back from injury and he has looked promising,” Boyce said. “He has good command. It’s a small sample, so it’s still tough to judge, but we liked what we saw from him.”
There are some questions Manalapan will have to answer, particularly in its pitching staff, but the Braves have the core talent back and the history of reloading to make them a threat in Class A North and any competition there might be in 2020.
“We didn’t have quite as much depth as I’d normally like to have, but the guys who were competing for the starting spots are very good,” Boyce said. “I thought we were going to be very competitive again and if things broke right, we could find ourselves with a similar opportunity to the one we had last year.
“You’d hate to see a group like this lose out on an entire season but unfortunately, it looks like that’s a real possibility. Hopefully we catch a break.”
Head Coach: Brian Boyce, 14th season
2019 Record: 24-9 (11-3, second in A North)
Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)
|Tom Guidice (Jr., 1B/3B/OF)||95||32||6||1||2||14||12||.337||.413||.484||1|
|Nick DiPietrantonio (Sr., SS)||100||31||9||2||3||14||30||.310||.372||.530||2|
|Hunter Serrano (Sr., 2B)||56||17||2||1||1||13||10||.304||.385||.429||2|
|Kyle Sciallo (Sr., 3B)||27||11||3||0||0||9||8||.407||.529||.519||7|
|Joe Mazza (Jr., OF)||32||11||0||1||1||2||8||.344||.382||.500||0|
Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)
|Joe Mazza (Jr., LHP)||4||2||34||28||11||16||19||2.26||1.29|
|Chris Nicol (Sr., LHP)||3||1||16.1||14||2||2||21||0.86||0.98|
|Hunter Serrano (Sr., RHP)||1||0||8.2||5||2||3||7||1.61||0.92|
Big Shoes to Fill: Joe Mazza, LHP/OF
Mazza was impressive in 34 innings on the mound and 34 plate appearances in the box and will have to be even better over a larger sampling to help Manalapan replace graduated two-way star Ben Levine. Mazza became a sort of Levine-light by the end of last year and whenever play resumes, he will be the Braves’ foremost two-way talent.
Top Newcomer: Tyler Kane, RHP/SS
Right behind Mazza on the list of potential two-way stars is Kane, who has yet to make an impact at the varsity level but figures to do so whenever play resumes. The 5-foot-10 right-hander is not an imposing figure on the mound but he has impressed Boyce and the coaching staff with his polish, confidence and competitiveness at a young age.
X-Factors: Kyle Sciallo (Sr., 3B) and Chris Nicol (Sr., LHP)
Sciallo and Nicol underscore the depth Manalapan tends to have on its roster in a good year. Both players were excellent in what amounted to bench roles – Sciallo as a utility man who hit .407 and Nicol as a middle reliever who was untouchable for the first month of the season. If those two seniors could carry that performance over to more at-bats and more innings, it would go a long way in covering some of the graduation losses from a year ago.