TOMS RIVER - The first five innings of his team's NJSIAA South Jersey Group III opening-round game at Toms River South High School were following an all-too familiar script for Pinelands senior Joey Ventresca.

As has been the case more times than he would like this season, Ventresca had given up only one earned run and yet his team was still on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

On top of that, Pinelands was about to end its season on the same field it ended during Ventresca's freshman and sophomore seasons.

A controversial call that took a run off the scoreboard for Pinelands in the top of the sixth appeared to be the last sign that it once again would not be the Wildcats' day - even in a game in which Ventresca pitched well.

Instead, the call had the opposite effect. Pinelands responded with a defiant two-inning surge and with Ventresca doing plenty to help his own cause, Pinelands finally gave its ace the support he has been earning throughout his stellar senior season.

Ventresca pitched shutout ball over the final six innings Tuesday and capped his three-RBI game with a two-run home run in the seventh inning to highlight a 6-2 win by the ninth-seeded Wildcats over No. 8 Toms River South in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III Tournament - the first ever NJSIAA Tournament win for the Pinelands baseball program.

"We are living by the motto, 'Why not us?,'" Ventresca said. "We have been looked over for teams like Jackson Liberty and Point Boro in our division and we're saying, 'Why not us? Why can't we make a run? Around the fourth inning today, we started realizing, 'Hey, why not?'"

Trailing 2-0 and with only one hit in the game to that point, Pinelands opened the sixth inning with five straight hits. On the second one, however, Pinelands had a run wiped off the board when Toms River South won an appeal at third base, with the home plate umpire ruling that junior Bryce O'Rouke missed the base when he tried to score on a double by senior Anthony Diaz. The run would have made it 2-1, but instead kept the score 2-0 with one out.

"My perspective was (O'Rourke) actually tripped over the base, which is why he stumbled coming around third," first-year Pinelands coach Justin Loomis said. "The umpire saw it differently and we agreed to disagree and that was his call. I do think it sparked something in our dugout because guys were really aggressive that inning and started going up to the plate with a different mentality - a more confident mentality."

Freshman Rian O'Rourke followed the controversial call with a single to center field to put runners on the corners and Ventresca then came through with an RBI single to right to officially get Pinelands on the board.

"We used it as motivation," Ventresca said. "It got us fired up."

Senior second baseman Billy Crawford then tied the game with a single to center field off new pitcher Matt Hartshorn, who took over for starter Gabe Driscoll. Hartshorn then got a strikeout for the second out and with runners on second and third, Toms River South opted to walk senior Noah Dean and pitch to senior Pete Hammond.

Hammond made the Indians pay with a single to left-center to give his team a 3-2 lead.

"I called him over and told him to make them pay," Loomis said of his quick chat with Hammond. "Anytime someone challenges you like that, you want to be able to answer that."

Diaz again doubled in the seventh and Rian O'Rourke knocked him in with a single before Ventresca capped the scoring by launching the first pitch he saw onto the roof of Toms River South High School in right-center field.

"It's been a dream of mine to put one on the roof here," Ventresca said. "I knew he was coming with a changeup and I got the barrel to the ball. The team was going crazy in the background - that was the best part about it."

Ventresca's home run stood out not only for its distance or impact in the game, but also because of the bat he used. For the past week, Vestresca estimates, he has been using a wood bat rather than the typical aluminum for high school hitters.

"During the summer, I only use wood," Ventresca said. "I hit eight home runs over the summer. With a metal bat, I hit none. I did hit one at Donovan Catholic, but I don't count that. Their field is too small."

After giving up two runs in the bottom of the first and five hits over the first three innings, Ventresca allowed just two hits over four scoreless frames to secure his third win of the season.

Toms River South opened the scoring when Driscoll lined a single into center field to drive in senior Colin Mackle and Hartshorn followed him home on an error in center field.

Driscoll coasted through the first five innings, during which he allowed only one hit and one walk, before running into trouble in the third, starting with a double down the line by Bryce O'Rourke, the No. 9 hitter.

"We were hitting some balls hard early in the game with nothing to show for it so we just had to keep at it," Ventresca said. "They brought in Hartshorn, who pitched against us two years ago, so there was definitely a revenge factor there when we saw him come in."

Monday's win helped ease some bad memories for the Pinelands seniors who remember losing to Toms River South in the first round of the South Group III Playoffs in consecutive years. The Indians handled Pinelands, 7-0, in 2016 and edged Ventresca, 1-0, in the 2017 postseason.

"I knew we were in for a battle here," Ventresca said. "It wasn't going to be a bunch of strikeouts - I was going to have to battle their hitters and rely on my defense and the guys in the field stepped up. Toms River South's a great team, this is a tough place to win but we just came out, had fun and never stopped playing."

Pinelands will travel to play top-seeded Triton in the sectional quarterfinals and will send Dean to the mound as the other half of its one-two punch of Division I arms. The Old-Dominion-bound left-hander is 3-2 with a 3.50 and 48 strikeouts in 26 innings this season and try to pitch his team past the No. 1 seed in the bracket.

"With Joey and Noah, we like our chances against anybody," Loomis said. "We are going to go as far as those guys can take us and we also feel really good about Pat Apgar and Pete Hammond if we need to go to them. Our pitching has been our strength all year and when you get to this part of the schedule, it becomes even more important to have those type guys. It's great to get the first one and we're going to try to keep it going."

 

Box Score

Pinelands 6, Toms River South 2

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Pinelands (10-9) 0 0 0 0 0 3 3 6 11 2
TR South (13-10) 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 7 3

Pitching

Pinelands IP H R ER BB SO PC
Joey Ventresca (W, 3-4) 7 7 2 1 0 6 83
Barnegat IP H R ER BB SO PC
Gabe Driscoll (L, 4-4) 5.1 5 3 3 1 4 65
Matt Hartshorn 1 5 3 3 1 1 32
Keifer Samul 0.2 1 0 0 1 0 19

Top Hitters

Pinelands Stats
Joey Ventresca 2-4, HR, 2 R, 3 RBI
Anthony Diaz 2-4, 2 2B, 2 R
Rian O’Rourke 2-4, 2 R, RBI
Pete Hammond 1-4, RBI
Bill Crawford 1-4, RBI
Bryce O’Rourke 1-2, 2B
Toms River South Stats
Colin Mackle 2-3, R
Matt Hartshorn 3-3, R
Gabe Driscoll 1-3, RBI
Jordan Erbe 1-3, 2B