Last Dance World Series: Howell scores late to beat Neptune and reach South Jersey Round of 16
RED BANK – Mired in a mini-slump, Howell senior Nick Guerrino figured maybe the best thing to do was take a seat and regroup. Coach Grant Hackett assured him his time would come.
“He’s a guy who is one of the most unselfish players,” said Hackett, a 2017 Howell grad and current player at Alvernia College who is serving as the team’s head coach during the Last Dance High School World Series. “He came to me today and said, ‘Coach, leave me out of the lineup’, and I said, ‘Guerrino, you’re going to get your spotlight tonight’.”
That moment came in the bottom of the sixth inning on Thursday night. With runners on first and second and one out in a tie game against Neptune in the Pool 6 final, Guerrino was called on as a pinch hitter. On a 1-2 count, Guerrino took a fastball the other way for an RBI single that scored Jack Bearse for the go-ahead run as Blue and Gray defeated Neptune, 3-1, at Count Basie Park to reach the Last Dance World Series South Jersey Round of 16.
“The pitch before was a fastball down the middle and I got a little ahead of myself, a little too antsy,” Guerrino said. “I’d been late on him and I figured he was probably going to go fastball again so let me just try to get my hands in the back of the zone and just stay with it and not try to do too much.”
“I’ve been slumping all tournament. I was trying to give my team a chance today and I was able to come up big for them.”
Howell now advances to the knockout round as one of the final 16 teams left in the South Jersey Region. Blue and Gray will face Kingsway at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21 at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood.
Junior right-hander Chris Ellison and senior left-hander Jake Lenardo combined on a great pitching performance that limited Neptune to one run and just two hits. Ellison started and went three innings, allowing one run on two hits while striking out four on 46 pitches. He also plated Blue and Gray’s first run with a first-inning RBI single that brought home Vin Impresa.
Lenardo entered in the fourth inning and got himself into trouble when he briefly lost the strike zone. He walked two hitters to give Neptune first and third with two outs, but induced a grounder that resulted in a force at second base to get out of the jam. From there, Lenardo settled in and face the minimum nine batters over the final three innings.
“I just started tuning everybody out and just focused on my catcher,” Lenardo said.
“We never doubt Lenardo,” Hackett said. “We kept him in and he bowled them down.”
After quick sixth inning where he threw just nine pitches, there was little debate whether Lenardo would come out for the seventh to close the game out after Howell had taken the lead.
“I told them I’m finishing the game, I got it,” Lenardo said. “I knew I could do it.”
Ellison made quick work of Neptune in the top of the first and threw just seven pitches. In the bottom half, Impresa walked with one out and Antonio Gatti also walked to put runners on first and second. Next, Ellison delivered a single that left field that brought home Impresa with the game’s first run.
Neptune answered in the top of the second. Catcher John Gannon legged out an infield single and, after Ellison struck out the next two batters, pitcher Thomas Gamba-Ellis hit one deep to left field where AJ Furlong leaped to attempt a catch. It appeared the ball deflected off his glove, off the top of the fence and then dropped down into his glove. Howell argued it was an out, while Neptune argued it was a home run. Gannon came all the way around to score from first and Gamba-Ellis stood on second as it was ruled a double.
The score would remain tied until Guerrino’s RBI single in the sixth, although Howell had runners in scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings. After Guerrino’s single scored Bearse, leadoff hitter Tommy Talbot walked to load the bases and Impresa drew a walk to bring home Alex Jenkins, who had reached on an error.
Now, it’s onto Lakewood next week with a chance to extend their second-chance season.
“It’s a great feeling,” Lenardo said. “We were always good but we never got to show our true potential and this is the time we can do that now. We have a really good senior class and we’ve played together for years.”
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