By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

HAMMONTON — Jake Lodgek is a sophomore who typically doesn’t have much to say after games. Post-game interviews aren’t really his thing yet. Dominating opposing teams when he toes the rubber is, however.

Lodgek was outstanding on Tuesday afternoon as he and his Mainland teammates shut down Hammonton in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals, winning 3-0. The victory puts the unheralded Mustangs — who came into the tournament with a sub-.500 record and as the No. 9 seed — into the sectional championship game on Friday at No. 2 Delsea, a 2-1 winner over No. 3 Cherry Hill West. Mainland has now beaten three of the top eight seeds — No. 8 Cumberland, No. 1 Shawnee and No. 4 Hammonton — while allowing just two runs in those three games.

“I don’t know what to say, it was a great win. I feel great. I was very confident going in. The whole game I just knew we were going to win it. I had a lot of action on my fastball, and I knew my boys behind me were going to make plays, so I was just trying to get it right down the middle and let the boys do their thing,” said Lodgek, who already in just his second year of varsity baseball is verbally committed to the University of Miami. “I love this team. Our confidence (has been the big difference). All season, we knew it was there, we just had to get it all together, and now we have.”

“I was telling the kids all year long that the ability is there. I love my lineup, I’ve loved it all year, even when we weren’t playing well and weren’t winning,” said Mainland skipper Billy Kern. “I kept telling them, ‘guys, I would take you nine, 10 or 11 — we’ve probably started maybe 12 or 13 guys all year — and I kept saying to them, you’re the guys I would take every time out.’ It was just a matter of them seeing themselves be successful and have some confidence. Now, they have it rolling, and now we have to keep our temperament even as we keep advancing.”

Mainland DH Jack Haines reacts after hitting a booming double to left-center during the Mustangs’ state playoff win over Hammonton. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

If anybody says they envisioned Mainland (12-13, 5-7 Cape-Atlantic League American) in the sectional final before the state playoffs began, ask them for next week’s winning lottery numbers. Even having won four straight, the Stangs are still below .500 at 12-13 heading into Friday. But Kern made some changes in the lineup and the pitching has been phenomenal. In the win over Cumberland, Lodgek allowed just two hits and a run in five innings while striking out seven, and Cohen Cook and Ethan Mitnick provided two innings of hitless relief. Against Shawnee, Cook went 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on four hits with seven strikeouts, and Mitnick finished the Renegades off after Cook hit his pitch-count limit.

Then there was Tuesday, when Lodgek was masterful against Hammonton (15-12, 4-8 CAL American). He allowed just three hits while striking out seven in a complete game, and worked out of a couple of jams he put himself into with three walks.  

“His command of the fastball was huge. Around the third or fourth inning we had talked about how the breaking ball has been his out pitch but it wasn’t really there today. He tried to show change-up a little bit just to keep them off balance, but he commanded the fastball, outer and inner half, and just pitched to contact. That’s the biggest thing. He competed and got us out of tight situations,” Kern said. “When you put that college commitment next to his name everybody expects a 15-year-old to be that every single time out, but it’s difficult for him with those lofty expectations. Especially coming off a freshman season when he was arguably the ace over at Holy Spirit last year. I think over the last two or three weeks we’ve talked to him and challenged him about being a leader and to take that step like, ‘hey, you’re an end-of-the-year sophomore now heading toward being a junior.’ And he’s been fantastic. He’s been helping us offensively, he’s been helping us on the mound. I think he’s going to be a great leader for us going forward. We’re just scratching the surface of what he’s going to be during his high school career.”

In 38 career innings pitched, Lodgek now has a 0.13 ERA with 46 strikeouts and only 32 hits allowed.

“That was a great pick-up, him coming back over from Holy Spirit,” said senior outfielder Joe Sheeran. “He’s been unbelievable all season and it’s really showing right now. I love the kid. He’s doing great.”

Mainland jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on an RBI single to left by Jack Haines, but Hammonton threw out a runner at the plate to end the inning, avoiding any more damage. In the second, Mainland extended its lead to 3-0 as Jake Blum singled, stole second and scored on a single to left by Christian Elliott, and Sheeran added an RBI single. That was all Lodgek needed all day. He stranded two Hammonton runners in the second and turned a double play in the third on a line drive that nearly hit him in the face. In the fourth inning he stranded runners at second and third, and he left two more runners on in the fifth.

The mitt of Mainland catcher Brady Arena pops with dust after a Jake Lodgek fastball in the sixth inning. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Mainland avenged last year’s 3-0 loss to Hammonton in the second round of the state playoffs, and now takes on defending sectional champion Delsea (20-6), which was won four straight and seven of its last nine.

“I’m very surprised, I’m not going to lie. But I knew going in (to the playoffs) that we had a run like this in us. It’s all finally starting to come together. The JV kids who came up to varsity have really helped us out. In the dugout they are making noise, cheering for our team, and we’ve become a big family,” Sheeran said. “This is it for the seniors. In the first round against Cumberland I was just treating every at-bat like it was my last one, and against Shawnee, the same thing. It just keeps going, and I love it. It’s surreal. Everyone saw Mainland as the No. 9 seed and was looking past us, but I knew they shouldn’t because we have it in us. I’m excited for what’s to come.”

What’s next: No. 9 Mainland at No. 2 Delsea for the South Jersey Group 3 championship, 2 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays