By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

NORTHFIELD — Starting pitcher Nick Atohi was pulled by South Jersey Surf manager Jeff Ball in the top of the third inning of Wednesday night’s deciding Game 3 of the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League semifinals after giving up a pair of runs in the first and then back-to-back singles to start the top of the third. He spent the next four innings as the Surf’s third baseman, hoping he’d get just one chance to make up for putting his team in an early hole.

He got that chance in the bottom of the seventh — and cashed in big time.

Trailing 2-1 heading into the last of the seventh, former Absegami star led the inning off with a single to right against Northfield Cardinals ace Brandon Riggs, who had pitched brilliantly the first six innings. A few pitches later, Atohi drilled a fastball to dead center field for a two-run, walk-off homer that set off a frenzy among his teammates at home plate. The 3-2 victory puts the top-seeded Surf into next week’s best-of-5 championship series in the inaugural season of the league against No. 2 Buena, which edged No. 3 Ocean City, 4-3, in the other semifinal thanks to a two-run homer by former Major League catcher Johnny Monell Jr. and a complete game on the mound from Marco Rios. The series begins Monday at 7 p.m. at Birch Grove Park in Northfield.

“It was in my head going into that at-bat that I had to do something for the team because of what happened in the first inning,” said Atohi, a former Mainland star who spent this spring at Atlantic Cape Community College. “I just had to go up there with a two-strike approach; I was looking for a pitch and I got it the second pitch of the at-bat. It felt good to get the redemption I was looking for.”

“I was looking early all game. I only saw three pitches (in my three at-bats). I got the slider, I was able to get inside of it — the previous at-bat I was out in front so I was really just thinking about trying to get something opposite field to get on base and set the table,” Daggers said. “That was crazy. I thought it was gone for sure off the bat but then their center fielder started camping by the fence and I was like, ‘oh, snap! I better not get doubled off here. That would suck.’ But then it left the yard and I couldn’t believe it.”

Northfield, the No. 4 seed, got off to a great start, putting up a pair of runs in the first inning as Brett Uhing reached on an error, Bobby Baxter followed with a double to the gap in left-center, and Juan Mejia drove both runners in with a sharp single to center. But Atohi was able to limit the damage by getting a flyout and strikeout to end the inning. The Cardinals went down in order in the second but after the first two hitters reached in the third, coach Ball didn’t want to take any chances on a big inning by the Cardinals.

Cam Mathes, of Villanova University, came on in relief and was able to get two strikeouts and an infield pop-up to get out of the jam. The Surf then cut the deficit in half in their half of the third as Giacomo Antonicello led off with a single, took second on a passed ball, was bunted to third by A.J. Hansen and scored on Colin Lombardo’s single to center. From there, Mathes did the rest, striking out the side in the fourth and finishing with nine strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings of relief.  

“Cam has been awesome all year. He shoves it, throws his stuff around the zone and challenges hitters,” Daggers said. “He doesn’t try to mix it up too crazy, but he attacks the zone and attacks hitters. He just keeps battling, and that’s what you need from a reliever. He has that ‘attack hitters’ approach with really good stuff, and when you can challenge hitters with the stuff and velo he has, he’s a tough guy to try to get hits off of.”

“This has been a competitive league from the beginning and we all want to win it. We’re all in it to win it and it’s nice to finally put it all together. It’s an awesome feeling to get it done,” Atohi added. “We have some guys from Villanova, a pitcher from Iona. Everybody came in here wanting to compete. We knew we wanted to win the league to begin with and everybody has been here every week, taking off from work when they need to in order to make the games. Everybody has to has that dedication.”

The Surf finished 20-3 to win the regular-season title and did so because of their pitching depth. That depth will get tested next week as the best-of-5 series will be played Monday through Friday. But Surf players say they are confident they can go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team.

“We have some depth with our pitching, it just depends on what we do the first couple of games. Hopefully we can win it in three,” Atohi said.

“We’ve proven we can out-hit people, like (Tuesday night) winning 16-1, we proved we can put it all together (offensively). And we’ve proven we can hang in games and get the big hit when we need it, like tonight,” Daggers added. “It’s going to be a battle of attrition next week.”

What’s next: Game 1 of the SJSSBL Championship Series, Monday at 7 p.m. at Birch Grove Park in Northfield; South Jersey Surf vs. Buena Blue Dawgs.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays