By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
ABSECON — The last time Ocean City won an Atlantic County Baseball League championship the internet wasn’t even invented yet. When Ted Khoury revived the program in 2011, he was intent on changing that.
It has taken Khoury and his coaching staff nine years, but Ocean City is once again the ACBL’s cream of the crop after taking down Absecon, 2-0, on Tuesday night in Game 2 of the best-of-3 championship series. Ocean City scored a 10-0 shutout on Monday night to move into position to capture the title with a victory tonight.
Pitching has been the dominant theme for Ocean City all year long, as Khoury was able to add guys like former Cincinnati Reds draft pick Tyler Mondile and St. John’s star Ian Murphy. But it was little-known Matt Lawler, a product of Mainland Regional High who now pitches at William Patterson, who stole the show on Tuesday night. The crafty lefty held Absecon scoreless through five innings before giving way to Mondile, who pitched two flawless innings to get the save.
“I just tried to throw strikes. I’m not a big strikeout guy, so I just wanted to pitch to contact and get it done. I had faith in my fielders, and we got it done. I felt good, I mainly threw my fastballs and would drop a curve in there once in a while. I just tried to keep their hitters off balance, and we got it done,” Lawler said. “I’ve been playing (in this league) for four years and haven’t come close (to winning a title). I feel like I’m a lot better (than in high school). I may not look it, size-wise, but just strength-wise and learning more from pitching in college, and also learning from everybody here. It’s been great to watch the pitchers we have. It’s fun to be around.”
“Pitching always wins games. We were six guys deep on our pitching staff and we had confidence in every guy,” added outfielder Dom Fiorentino, an Ocean City High graduate who played college ball at Ursinus. “They just shoved, time in and time out. I’m excited for them and where they’re going to go. I had a lot of fun this summer. We knew we were going to be one of the better teams in the playoffs and we played with a lot of confidence. We set our goal and we did it.”
Added Khoury, “(Lawler) got lit up against Margate in his first start of the year and came back against Northfield and shut them down. I had full confidence. He plays well here because it’s tough to get a fly ball out of here.”
Khoury said his team, and the league as a whole, benefitted from the Cape Cod League — the premier wood bat, college-aged league in the country — not having a season this summer.
“Our difference this year was our pitching. I’d love to go through the stats for the last 140 years of this league — we’re literally six guys deep, there’s not one guy on our team who wouldn’t at least be a No. 2 on any other team. Nick Pave from Lehigh, threw a no-hitter against Ventnor and then comes out last night and shuts these guys down. And he might be our No. 5 pitcher. Brendan Bean hits spots, Tyler Mondile is trying to work his way back (to professional baseball); Ian Murphy from St. John’s. Our pitching across the board this year has been fantastic,” Khoury said. “We broke through the ceiling. We’ve been so close. We were six inches away from possibly going ahead of (Margate Hurricanes) in Game 3 a few years ago but a ball went foul. But we battled back and we got blessed with some great pitching. There was no Cape (Cod League) this year, and this league was the best it’s been in years. Every team grinds and battles, and you saw that with a great job by (Absecon pitcher) Mike DiIanni, who only pitched a few games this year but comes out here tonight and pitches seven innings. He held us to two runs, and we don’t usually get held to just two runs.”
Ocean City pushed a run across in the top of the second when Bean hit a leadoff double, was moved to third on a groundout by Steve Normane, then scored on a groundout by Nick Nocella. The visitors added a second run in the top of the third when Sleiter Suriel, pinch running for catcher Joe Gallagher, who led off the inning with a single, scored on an infield error. That was all Lawler and Mondile needed to close out the series sweep.
“It’s a surreal feeling. You can’t ask for anything better for coach Khoury,” Lawler said.
“It feels great to get the win for Ted and the other coaches, and the guys who have been here for years,” Fiorentino added. “It feels good to bring a championship home for them, the guys who have been here since Day One. It brought me back to my high school days, to be honest. It feels good to bring the championship back to Ocean City, it hasn’t been there since about 1994, I think.”
The ACBL regular season was shortened to just 12 regular-season games this summer — half of what it normally is — because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a new double-elimination playoff format with a three-game championship series, instead of five games, was implemented. Ocean City knocked off Egg Harbor City and defending champion Margate Hurricanes to reach the championship game, while Absecon got past Ventnor and Hammonton.
“We did this to try to get some normal back into our lives,” Khoury explained. “We’re baseball players, that’s what we do. And to not be able to do that wouldn’t feel right. We understand the circumstances — and I was one of the last guys who thought we should play this year. There could be injuries because guys hadn’t had a season (in the spring), and I didn’t want to get anybody hurt before they go back to college to play. But at the end of the day, we’re supposed to be on the field.”
Now, a team Khoury formed nearly a decade ago to give Mainland and Ocean City players an opportunity has built upon the years of growing pains and can call itself a champion.
“here were not a lot of places for Mainland and Ocean City guys to break in (10 years ago), so we put this team together, and it has absolutely been worth it,” Khoury said. “We had a blast. This is a great group of guys.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays