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BAYVILLE – The good news for the Toms River 12-year-old Little League team is that it will play for its second state championship in five years on Monday at the Berkeley Little League Complex against Ocean City-Upper Township with its most dominant pitcher on the mound. The bad news is Toms River missed its chance to win the state championship on Sunday.

Ocean City-Upper Township stormed out to two different six-run leads and held on to beat Toms River, 10-6, to force a winner-take-all state championship game between the two teams on Monday at 7 p.m. on Modell’s Field. It will be the third meeting between the teams, with Toms River winning the winner’s bracket final, 4-2, on Friday night in comeback fashion.

Ocean City shortstop Gannon Brady trots home after hitting a key three-run homer in the fifth inning of his team's 10-6 win over Toms River Sunday. Toms River and Ocean City will play one game on Monday night to decide the state champion. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“We really wanted to avoid playing tomorrow and win a championship today if we could,” Toms River manager Pete Avallone said. “We had plenty of chances to score, but we just left too many men on base. Fortunately, ‘Gio’ is ready to go tomorrow for us and we can still win this thing.”

Jonathan Giordano – who will get the ball on Monday night after tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts in a win over Wood-Ridge on Wednesday – belted his second home run in as many games with a solo shot in the first inning to put Toms River ahead 1-0. It was the only lead Toms River held in the game and it was the first of two hits in a 2-for-2 game for Giordano, who was also intentionally walked twice. Giordano hit the game-tying home run in the top of the sixth inning of Friday’s win over Ocean City and picked up where he left off in the first inning Sunday.

“I’m sure they felt like they had the game in the bag after the first inning,” Ocean City starter Joe Gallagher said. “It’s not the way I wanted to start the game, but he’s a good hitter and I just thought, ‘Get him next time.’ We came back and scored some runs and now we’re playing tomorrow.”

Jonathan Giordano solo HR in the 1st from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

Ocean City, however, answered with three runs in the bottom of the first with five consecutive singles to start the game. After knocking in a run in the first inning, Gallagher pitched a scoreless second and broke the game open with a three-run home run that landed on the adjacent Al Leiter Field in left-center to make it 7-1. Second baseman Gavin Fox led off the inning with a solo home run to put Ocean City ahead, 4-1.

Toms River clawed back to within 7-4 with three runs in the third inning. Second baseman Vinny Rose and Giordano both singled to start the inning and Rose scored on a fielder’s choice ground out to shortstop by Nick DeRose. Starting pitcher Christian Wood then followed with a screaming line drive that cleared the fence in right-center for a two-run home run that cut the Toms River deficit to 7-4.

Ocean City eventually added plenty of insurance on a three-run home run by shortstop Gannon Brady with two out in the bottom of the fifth to make it 10-4.

“It’s tough trying to keep (Toms River) from coming back, especially with their crowd making noise the way they do,” Gallagher said. “That’s why getting those three runs on the home run by Gannon was so huge. It gave our pitchers a bigger lead to work with.”

Joe Gallagher long 3-run HR in the 2nd from All Shore Media on Vimeo.

Toms River scored twice in the sixth and was one batter away from bringing the tying run to the plate, but John Lloyd – the fourth Ocean City pitcher of the game – struck out the lone batter he faced to end the game. Catcher Connor Cino plated the first run of the inning with a fielder’s choice ground out after Ocean City opted to intentionally walk Giordano to load the bases, despite the fact that a home run would only have made the score 10-7.

“We were glad to see them walk him there,” Avallone said. “At that point, we needed baserunners and they gave us a free one.”

Wood plated the final Toms River run with a soft pop-up that landed between the pitcher and catcher. Wood finished the game 3-for-3 with a home run and three RBI.

DeRose came on in relief of Wood with one out in the second inning and did not allow an earned run over his first 2 2/3 innings of work. The Toms River offense, however, failed to cash in on a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity in the top of the fourth inning. In all, Toms River stranded nine baserunners and went 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position, with both hits coming from Wood.

“Nick did exactly what we ask him to do for us, and that’s throw strikes and give us a chance to win the game,” Avallone said of DeRose, who lasted only 2/3 of an inning in his first start on Wednesday. “He did a great job keeping them off balance with his curveball and getting us back into the dugout. We just didn’t get enough big hits.”

Ocean City reliever Brian Furey – who gave up four runs with two outs in the sixth inning on Friday – recorded the last out of the fourth and pitched a scoreless fifth in a bounceback effort. Brock Mercado, who is Ocean City’s lone 11-year old, recorded the first two outs of the sixth inning, including a key strikeout of DeRose for the second out of the inning. DeRose had homered in each of Toms River’s first two games, the first a game-tying home run in the fifth inning against Wood-Ridge and the second a go-ahead homer in the sixth inning against Ocean City on Friday.

“I just made sure I took a couple of deep breaths and just threw strikes,” Mercado said. “We had a good lead, so it was my job to throw strikes and make sure I made them hit the ball.

“Losing to them like we did was tough, but we bounced back with a win (over Somerset Hills on Saturday) and that got us refocused. They came back against us the first time, but today was a new game.”

Ocean City will have Furey and Mercado both available Monday, but its top two starters – Brady and Gallagher – are unavailable. Gallagher threw 89 pitches on Sunday while allowing four earned runs and striking out five, while Brady allowed only one hit and struck out 12 in 5 1/3 innings on Friday before reaching the pitch limit.

Facing elimination on Saturday, Ocean City beat Somerset Hills, 10-7, and then overcame a tough Toms River lineup and hometown crowd to advance to Monday.

“I’d say it took us until the third inning or so of the first game against them to get used to their crowd and then it was kind of tough to finish the game,” Gallagher said. “I think it was good that we got used to it on Friday because it didn’t bother us today. We learned to block it out and just play.”

Toms River, meanwhile, will have the advantage of throwing, arguably, its top pitcher in Giordano, who threw 82 pitches in a relief appearance against Wood-Ridge on Friday.

“I think our kids knew they had a fallback plan and if that’s what they were thinking, well then we as coaches will take the blame for that,” Avallone said. “Now it comes down to one game, and we’ve got the guy we want on the mound.”


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