O.C. rallies in 8th to earn trip to SJG3 title game
OCEAN CITY — For the past two seasons, Mainland Regional has won championships by putting the ball in play and putting pressure on opposing defenses, getting great starting pitching, and playing solid defense. On Wednesday, rival Ocean City took a page out of the Mustangs' playbook to survive a tense South Jersey Group 3 semifinal matchup against Mainland and end the Mustangs' two-year reign as sectional champions.
Junior Matt Lashley raced all the way around from first base in the bottom of the eighth inning on an infield throwing error that skidded up the right-field line as the top-seeded Red Raiders knocked off No. 4 Mainland, 3-2, to advance to the South Jersey championship game against No. 2 Highland on Friday.
"I had no idea what was going on and that nobody was backing up the throw. I just saw coach (Mensinger) waving me around and I was thinking, 'I guess I'm going to score.' It was great," Lashley said. "I was very nervous. The kid pitching had a quick move so he was able to keep me close. One more, we just have to keep going."
With the game tied, 2-2, heading into the bottom of the eight and with starting pitcher Kyle Gerace having thrown well more than 100 pitches, Mainland (15-9) coach Billy Kern turned to sophomore Nick Atohi in relief. Atohi quickly got the first out, but then nicked Sean Mooney in the arm with a pitch, putting the winning run on base in the form of courtesy runner Lashley. Nick Artymowicz, who hit a two-run home run off Gerace in the bottom of the first inning for the Red Raiders' only runs up to that point, hit a slow roller to third. The throw sailed wide of the bag and down the right-field line, allowing Lashley to score.
"I just started jumping up and down. That was my first reaction," said Ocean City senior catcher Jeremy West. "Then coach was waving (Lashley) around, and we all just bolted to him."
"I was just trying to put the ball in play," Artymowicz said. "It wasn't what I was hoping for, but it turned out OK. I was still in shock (when I touched first base). I can't believe that happened."
Ocean City coach Craig Mensinger elected to start Josh Arnold on the mound to save Mooney, the Red Raiders' ace, for Friday's championship game. Earlier in the week, Mensinger said he had full confidence in Arnold, and Arnold showed why. Through the first five innings, Arnold allowed just one hit and three walks while striking out nine. Gerace was just as good, holding the Red Raiders scoreless for six straight innings after the first.
Gerace tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the sixth when he belted a 2-run home run to left off an Arnold fastball. Arnold had fanned Gerace on two occasions prior to that at-bat.
"I wasn't going to let it end on my watch. It's tough, because you can only throw so many pitches. I was up into the 100s and my arm was starting to feel dead like it does sometimes with the whole nerve thing. I wasn't going to put the season on the line with my injury. We had Nick warm up, and he did a great job. It can't come down to that one play. We had so many other chances to win this game. We battled, but they are a great team and they will take advantage," Gerace said. "I've played against Josh a lot, and he's the one pitcher who always strikes me out. He just knows how to pitch to me. I'd rather face Mooney. In that last at-bat, I was much more comfortable against Mooney than I was against Josh. Josh is a great pitcher, he really is. He always gets me with that low curveball, and he knows that. It's not a secret. I was looking to just keep my front shoulder in to stay in on that curveball and he threw me a fastball in. He's a battler. He's definitely a competitive player."
"You know how they usually say somebody stepped up to the plate? Well, Josh stepped up to the mound. He did a heck of a job. It's unbelievable," West said.
Ocean City (18-5) worked out of a jam in the top of the eighth, as Mainland's Rob Wood drew a walk off reliever Colton Ulmer to start the inning. Ulmer threw two pitches to Matt Thomas, who was trying to sacrifice Wood to second base, before Mensinger decided to turn to Mooney to close the door. Mooney induced a double-play on Thomas' bunt attempt, then two batters later shut the door with a strikeout.
"Artymowicz came up huge. He's been hitting great this year," Lashley said. "The seniors have all been starting for years now. They've been waiting for this, and it's their time to shine."
Artymowicz said the senior-dominated lineup of Ocean City is ready to take on Highland for the South Jersey championship.
"We've been working for this all four years, so it's great to finally be here. Josh did great, and the runs in the beginning of the game gave him some confidence, and he kept throwing well the whole time," Artymowicz said. "This is something we've definitely been waiting for all year. We can't wait to play on Friday."
West kept it short and sweet when talking about the title game on Friday.
"It's time to take care of business," he said. "That's all I have to say."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays