South Jersey Sports Report: Northfield Getting Hot Before Playoffs Begin
NORTHFIELD — Junior Mejia, a 36-year-old outfielder, has been playing in the Atlantic County Baseball League for nearly two decades — before some of today’s players were even born. So pressure situations late in games are no big deal for him. He’s seen it all before. Been there, done that.
With the Northfield Cardinals squaring off against first-place Hammonton on Thursday night in what will likely be the 2020 regular-season finale, Mejia did what he does more often than not, and that is come through in the clutch. The Cardinals trailed, 4-1, for much of the game until rallying to tie the game in the fifth, and then the sixth they had runners at second and third with two outs. Mejia fouled off a couple of tough curveballs in a two-strike count, then ripped a two-run double to left-center to help Northfield come away with a 6-4 victory. It was a much-needed confidence boost for a team that had much higher expectations heading into a shortened, 12-game season. The win put the Cardinals at 5-6 heading into the start of the league playoffs on Monday (they’ll make up a game Saturday night if it has any implications on the playoff seeding.)
Mejia’s big knock made a winner out of reliever Ethan Mesey, who twirled five innings of 2-hit ball after spelling starter Mike Dodd, who developed a blister on his pitching hand and had to come out after just two innings.
“My approach was really just trying to get something up the middle. With two guys on, I was just trying to get one run in so we could take the lead, and let Ethan do his job because he was doing a phenomenal job,” said Mejia, who went 3-for-4. “I was just trying to make an adjustment up there. I usually stand back in the box but I said, ‘you know what? I have to move up a little bit’ knowing he was dropping that deuce in there. I figured I would I would move up and try to catch it before it broke too much.”
The Hot Shots got to Dodd in the first inning as his former Egg Harbor Township High teammate Robbie Petracci launched a two-run homer to right field in the top of the first to stake Hammonton to a 2-0 lead, Kenny Levari added an RBI single and Joe Liscio a sacrifice fly as Hammonton jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Northfield got a run back in the bottom of the second on an RBI single by Hunter Barbieri, and when Mesey came in for relief in the third the tide began to change. It took a while, however, as former St. Joseph-Hammonton star pitcher Joe Marino was carving up the Northfield lineup for the better part of the first four innings.
His defense let him down in the fifth, however, as three infield errors helped Northfield mount a three-run rally that tied the game at 4. Mejia stroked a single to center to load the bases with one out and then two runs scored on errors before Dom Lopez lofted a sacrifice fly to tie the score. That set up Mejia’s heroics in the bottom of the sixth, and Mesey got the job done in the seventh to nail down the win over the Hot Shots, who fell to 8-3 but likely will retain the top seed heading into the playoffs.
“I was shocked to come in so early, in the third inning. My mindset is to just eat up innings. We’ve been on a skid and I’ve personally haven’t been doing my best, so it was good to get out there today and throw strikes and get people out. I felt good,” Mesey said. “I feel like this team always gets better in the playoffs. It’s all about timing in this game. One win doesn’t mean you’re hot, but if we can get it going, keep doing stuff like this and keep fighting, I think we’ll be alright.”
Mesey, a Marlton native and Cherokee High graduate, said the pandemic has afforded him a lot more time to devote to baseball, and he has been taking advantage of that.
“With everything going on in the world right now I’ve had more time to just focus on baseball. I usually come in for relief innings when I’m needed, but tonight it was good to be able to extend myself,” he said. “I haven’t thrown a lot of pitches (recently), so I’m trying to get the feel back. But everything felt good today. In my college days I was a starter and I felt like I got progressively better as the game went on, and that’s what it felt like tonight.”
Mejia has played for several teams in the ACBL, most recently Hammonton before switching to Northfield this year. He may finish out his career in a red-and-white jersey — unless Cardinals players can convince him to come back out and play again in 2021.
“It’s definitely been a change, I miss those guys and I had some good years over there. But it’s nice to be here — I’m on my way out, so it’s nice to be closer to home,” he said. “I told (Hammonton coach Sam Rodio) right before the season that it’s nothing personal, it’s just me working my way out and wanting to play closer to home. I just wanted to come out here and have a decent season with these guys. I was telling Brett that this season might be it. He thinks I have another season in me, but we’ll get through this one and see where we’re at. In my mind, this might be it.”
The Cardinals — who won the league title in 2018 and finished second last year — will most likely be the No. 6 seed in next week’s eight-team, bracket style playoff tournament, and even though they didn’t have the type of season they were expecting, this team still plays with a lot of confidence.
Said Mesey, “with the guys we have and the energy we can bring, don’t sleep on the Cardinals.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays