By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When fans think of South Jersey baseball, certain programs come to mind. St. Augustine Prep, Gloucester Catholic, Shawnee, Cherokee, Delsea Regional, Mainland, Ocean City, Millville, Lenape. These types of programs produce outstanding teams year in and year out.
It might be time to start adding Cedar Creek to that list.
The Pirates have quietly put together one of the best seasons so far in South Jersey, as they took down Mainland, 9-4, on Tuesday in the play-in round of the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, running their record to 13-3. Cedar Creek has won 11 of its last 12 games after a 2-2 start, the lone loss during that stretch a 6-4 setback against Lenape.
“We’re playing well. We saw Mainland last week and they are a good team. Their hitters, 1-through-9, can put the ball in play, but we have a scrappy bunch, too,” said Cedar Creek skipper Ryan Flannery. “We went down 4-0 in what felt like the blink of an eye and we challenged the kids to stay in the game all seven innings and we ended up coming out on the right side of it. We had a rally in the fifth and then in the sixth inning we kind of pulled away. It was a good team win in which everybody contributed.
“We were able to tie it up in the fifth and had bases loaded with one out when they went to the bullpen, and they got out of that jam. But in the bottom of the sixth we scored five runs.”
Mainland, the No. 20 seed in the field — which expanded from 16 teams to 24 this season — jumped out to a 4-0 lead, including three runs in the top of the first. But the Pirates got a run in the fifth from an unlikely source, tacked on three more before the inning was over, then rallied for five runs in the sixth to blow the game open. They got their first run on an RBI single by relief pitcher Nolan Gerstenbacher, who had just one at-bat all season prior to Tuesday.
“Nolan came on in relief and he pitched phenomenally. He’s viewed as a pitcher only, but he actually got us on the board with a bloop single over the second baseman’s head,” Flannery said. “We kind of rallied from that so that was definitely the spark we needed, and it was unexpected. I had the bunt sign on, the tried a pick-off move and we showed (bunt) too early, so I took the bunt off and he ended up getting the run in.”
Catcher Tyler McCorriston tied the game in the fifth with an RBI double, and Ryan Manning’s two-run single in the sixth gave Cedar Creek a 7-4 lead and highlighted the five-run rally. Cedar Creek, the No. 13 seed, advances to Friday to take on No. 4 Egg Harbor Township.
“I think this is a great opportunity for us,” Flannery said. “We saw them in the beginning of the year and they ended up 10-running us, so this will be a great measuring stick to see where we are and how much we’ve progressed since then. I’m excited. Their program speaks for itself for what they are able to do year in and year out, so we’re excited to survive and advance to the next round.”
Flannery said his team, which made it to the South Jersey Group 2 championship game a year ago before falling 4-3 to Haddon Heights, is in this Diamond Classic to win it. They’re not just happy to be here.
“This is a prestigious tournament and I feel like the past couple of years we’ve been knocking on the door to get in, and we finally got in so we’re approaching this like we want to win it all,” he said. “We threw our No. 1 pitcher and closed it out with our No. 2. So, we went after it. We’re honored to be in the tournament and we want to try to win it.”
If they get a chance to win this tournament it will be because they keep doing what they’ve been doing all season. The Pirates don’t have a bunch of stars nor do they have dominant pitchers. What they do have, however, is a bunch of guys who want to compete and do a lot of things well, if not great. The pitching staff has only allowed 49 earned runs in 108 innings while also piling up 104 strikeouts. Offensively, Cedar Creek doesn’t steal a lot of bases (only 14 in 16 games) but it does put runners on base, as the Pirates have 122 hits and 84 walks. That’s led to 100 runs, an average of more than six runs per game.
“We have a lot of solid arms. Nobody who’s going to shut anybody down and we’ve talked about how we need to score to win. We can’t go out there and expect somebody like Christian Coppola (current Rutgers freshman) to go out and strike out 15 guys. Our bats were struggling early in the season and our pitching carried us, but now our bats are waking up. We’re getting some timely hitting from guys in big situations. Our average isn’t through the roof and our ERA isn’t great, but we’re getting timely hitting and timely pitching,” Flannery said. “We have a bunch of arms so sometimes we’ll try to piece games together. We’ll go a couple innings here with one guy, a couple innings there with another guy. We’re getting to the point where we’re trying to figure out who are playoff starters are, who our relievers are, who our closers are. We’re figuring all that out as we go, but I feel confident that any of these guys can come in and throw strikes. We’ve been playing good defense, we’re solid behind the dish (Tyler McCorriston) and I think we have one of the best shortstops, defensively, in the league (in Anthony Letizia). In the outfield we have Manning and we have a freshman, Richie Gonzales, who has earned a spot out there. He’s a winter track guy, so him and Manning can cover a lot of ground out there.”
Flannery said he initially thought his team was going to struggle early in the season after losing several starters to graduation and plugging in guys without a lot of varsity experience. The Pirates did struggle. For about a week.
“Going into this year my view was we might struggle early but as the season went on, guys got more mature and got more reps we’d get better and better. So a 13-3 start is a shocker for myself, but the kids have earned it,” he said. “They put in the work in the offseason. We set a standard last year being the No. 1 seed and making it to the sectional final. The kids want to get back there, so they put in the work in the offseason to put ourselves in a good position to do that.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays