Pinelands Regional Baseball Team Edged By T.R. South in SCT Quarterfinals

By DAVID BIGGY | May 31, 2017
Photo by: David Biggy

When the Pinelands Regional High School baseball team stepped onto the field at Toms River South’s Ken Frank Stadium on May 24, many of the fans in the bleachers probably weren’t expecting much of a game. It was one of those proverbial David-versus-Goliath matchups, after all – the No. 1 seed against a lowly No. 24 seed.

But the Wildcats weren’t there to just show up and take on the team with the winningest high school baseball coach in New Jersey. They were going after a third straight upset in the Shore Conference Tournament after becoming the first-ever 24th seed to reach the quarterfinals.

Unfortunately, the Wildcats came up short, losing a 1-0 decision against the highly touted Indians.

“We came into the game thinking we could win it,” said sophomore pitcher Joey Ventresca, who limited the Indians to five hits and a walk while striking out four in a complete-game effort. “We had nothing to lose, and we left it all out on the field. It’s a tough one to swallow, but this has been an awesome run. This was fun.”

After knocking off No. 9 Manasquan, 1-0, in the preliminary round on May 17, the Wildcats edged No. 8 St. Rose, 4-3, in the SCT first round on May 20. Three days later, Pinelands (12-12) played a first-round game against Mainland in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III tournament, losing 1-0 in eight innings.

So, logically, it made sense that Pinelands had a shot at pulling off the ultimate shocker – a 24th seed taking out the top seed in the SCT. For three innings, the Wildcats played the Indians even, as Ventresca retired the first eight batters in order and went into the bottom of the fourth with a scoreless tie.

But South’s T.J. Scuderi changed the scope of the game with one swing, as he whacked a curveball some 360 feet off the left-center field wall, ending up on third base. Ventresca got the next two batters to ground out, but Tom Campo flared a single into center field to bring in Scuderi with the eventual game-winner.

In the top of the sixth, Pinelands’ Anthony Diaz led off with a single to center and head coach Rob Zanzari had a decision to make – have Ventresca drop a bunt in an effort to move Diaz to second or have him swing away. Zanzari selected the latter option, and Ventresca grounded to South first baseman Matt Fitzpatrick, who forced Diaz at second. Peter Hammond then grounded into a double play to end the at-bat.

“Joey has plus-power into the gaps, and I was trying to give him an opportunity to hit a ball into one of those gaps,” Zanzari said after the game. “If anybody can get an extra-base hit in that spot, it’s Joey, so I wanted to keep the bat in his hand and see if we could, maybe, get the run in from first base.”

The Indians (22-3) didn’t have a base runner beyond second during their final two at-bats, and Pinelands still was very much within striking distance going into its final at-bat in the top of the seventh. With two outs, Nick Rapallo stroked a single into right-center field, but South pitcher Matt Hartshorn got Riley Stephenson to ground out to end the contest.

Besides the hits from Diaz and Rapallo, the Wildcats ended up with two other singles, off the bats of Bobby LeFevre and Stephenson.

Afterward, senior Chris Burke praised his teammates for putting together a solid run in the SCT and becoming more of a team during the latter half of the season. In late April, the Wildcats were in the midst of a slump, and it was questionable whether they’d qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament – something that had never been done by a Pinelands baseball team, according to Zanzari.

“We’ve had a lot of ups the past few weeks, after a rough first half of the season,” Burke said. “This team has become more close-knit the past month, and we just started playing big. We started caring more about each other, and we started playing more for each other. And all that led us to today. I’m happy we were here, and even if we lost a close game, there’s no better place – other than our home field – to end a season than at Ken Frank Stadium.”

Coming out of the weekend, Pinelands still had a scheduled game against Southern Regional to possibly make up, but with the Rams still playing in the state tournament as of Tuesday, it may not get played.

Against Mainland, Hammond took the hill and gave Pinelands a fantastic outing as the starter, going seven innings and giving up one hit. But with Hammond up against a pitch limit, Zanzari utilized a reliever in the eighth and the Mustangs mustered three hits to score the only run. The Wildcats managed only three hits.

“That’s been a thing for us all season, not getting the big hit,” Zanzari said. “We’ve been hitting the ball right at guys a lot this season, and in these last two games it hurt us. But we’ve proven ourselves. We’ve been right there against some good teams the past few weeks.”

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