By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
VINELAND — If you don’t make any adjustments against Absegami senior left-hander Mike DeBlasio, he’ll carve you up like Thanksgiving turkey. That’s exactly what the southpaw did for four innings on Monday afternoon in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament first round against host Vineland, but in the bottom of the fifth the Fighting Clan moved up on the plate, looked to take the ball the other way, and rallied for four runs that pushed them to a 5-2 victory and a date with No. 2 St. Augustine Prep in Wednesday’s semifinals.
In the other first-round matchup, No. 5 Egg Harbor Township got past No. 4 Lower Cape May, 4-1, behind a nine-strikeout performance from senior Coastal Carolina commit Cameron Flukey. The Eagles will travel to top-seeded Buena in Wednesday’s other semifinal.
Vineland managed just one run off DeBlasio through the first four innings as Absegami carried a 2-1 lead into the fifth, but a leadoff walk to freshman Mario Toro changed everything. The Fighting Clan rallied for four runs on just two hits — one of which was a bunt single — and senior Nikolas Bancroft shut the door with 3 2/3 innings of one-hit relief.
“Nik has been a bulldog. Ever since he’s been a sophomore we’ve had him up on varsity,” said Vineland coach Kyle Jones. “He has really good control of his off-speed pitch so we actually pitch backwards with him a lot. His biggest enemy is himself, but when he stays focused on the mound he’s really good.”
“Nik has been a dog all season,” added fellow senior Anthony Rakotz. “His curveball has been working all season and he has a pretty low ERA. Nobody’s really been able to touch him.”
Bancroft’s sweeping curveball befuddled sixth-seeded Absegami hitters over the final three innings as he allowed just two baserunners.
“I try to just make my pitches,” he said. “I know my defense has my back, they make tons of plays for me all the time. I felt my slurve in the pen and was located it really well. I just kept going with it and they weren’t hitting it.”
Vineland (15-8, 8-4 Cape-Atlantic League American) jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning when leadoff batter Yenuelle Rodriguez singled to right, was sacrificed to second by Rakotz, stole third and trotted hom on an infield error. DeBlasio was victimized by four infield errors throughout his six innings of work, as he fanned eight and allowed just two earned runs.
Absegami (13-6, 8-3 CAL National) picked up a run in the second to tie the game at 1 as John Leonetti ripped an RBI single, and the Braves took a 2-1 lead in the fourth when Matt Johanson was hit by a pitch, sacrificed to second and driven in by DeBlasio with a single up the middle.
But in the bottom of the fifth No. 3 Vineland rallied for four runs on just two hits. The Clan were aided by two errors, a walk, a passed ball and a wild pitch, and stole a couple of bags. After Toro walked, an infield error put runners at first and second, and wild pitch moved both into scoring position. Benedetto Andreolo then laid down a safety squeeze that scored pinch runner Carson Ippolito with the tying run, and one batter later David Ortiz scored on another error to give the Fighting Clan the lead for good at 3-2. Another run scored on a passed ball, and Rakotz gave Vineland some insurance with an RBI single to right field that pushed the lead to 5-2.
“My first at-bat was just a sacrifice bunt, so I did my job there, but in my second at-bat (a strikeout) I wasn’t doing what (coach Jones) said,” Rakotz said. “My third at-bat I came up with a clutch single. I got into a full count and just took the fastball the other way.”
Jones tried to give individual hitters advice on how to handle DeBlasio throughout the game, but prior to the fifth inning his frustration boiled over and he brought the entire team behind the dugout to get his point across.
“I think the biggest things is we haven’t had a lot of practice this year. Telling them to make the adjustments and practicing making the adjustments are two different things,” Jones explained. “I told them when I brought them behind the dugout (before the fifth inning) that if they didn’t make any adjustments, we weren’t going to win this game. They finally listened.”
Vineland now has a chance to get a little redemption on Wednesday against St. Augustine Prep, as the Hermits thrashed them, 17-2, a week ago during a regular-season game.
“At this point in the season we’re just trying to put some wins together to move into the Group 4 playoffs,” Jones said. “We’ve played some tough teams and took some tough losses recently, so we’re just trying to get on the winning side of things moving into the state playoffs. We just have to keep playing strong defense, and it was nice to see us make that adjustment even though it came late in the game.
Added Bancroft, “this gives us a bunch of confidence. It seems like we’re always underrated and always the underdog, and I think with this win we can be taken serious that we’re here to play, and we’re here to win. This tournament is tough, but we just have to stay in it. Pitchers have to make pitches and the defense has to make plays. We’ll find ways to get the bats going and score some runs. I think it comes down to whoever wants it more.”
Said Rakotz, “we just have to keep gelling as a team. From now on, we have to be locked in and ready to go.”
What’s next: No. 3 Vineland at No. 2 St. Augustine Prep, Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the CAL Tournament semifinals. Absegami travels to Cedar Creek today at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays