By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — A peaceful slumber is something that rarely happens for a high school baseball coach during the season. Thoughts of how their respective team can play better pound on their brain during the wee hours of the morning and cause a lot of tossing and turning.
Absegami skipper Junior Mejia slept like a baby on Tuesday night.
That’s an easy thing to do when you hand the ball to senior lefty Mike DeBlasio and watch him twirl a no-hitter in less than two hours. Everything went right for the host Braves, with DeBlasio slicing his way through the Holy Spirit lineup, classmate Frank Gargione coming up with a huge bases-clearing double in the second inning and the defense playing errorless ball. It all added up to a much-needed 8-0 victory in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week. Absegami had lost 2-of-3 coming into Tuesday, including a 6-4 loss at Holy Spirit on Monday.
“We got a good win today, so I can go home and sleep tonight,” Mejia said after the game. “(Monday) was rough, but I can go home and sleep tonight knowing we were able to get the big hit, the pitching was great and guys were making plays. Everything worked out today, so I can go home and relax.”
DeBlasio had everything working for him against the Spartans, mixing in a good fastball that he was able to locate all around the strike zone with a sharp curveball and the occasional change-up. He got ahead of hitters and put pressure on them to take their swings. He did allow four base runners via three walks and a hit batsman, but never really labored through any inning. He needed just 84 pitches to spin a complete game shutout.
And he did all that after having not practiced since coming down with illness after his last start, a 4-3 loss to Hammonton last Thursday.
“I was hyped for him. He’s been sick for about a week. We were planning to use him yesterday, but thank God he was able to come out here today and pitch,” Gargione said. “A no-hitter — that’s his second one. Me and him threw (a combined) no-hitter last year, so he’ll get another plaque on the wall. His mechanics were on, he was keeping the ball low and his offspeed stuff was there.”
“In the pregame I was just telling myself not to think too much. What was working was I had a lot of time to think when I was sick and I visualized a lot. I’ve been really working on timing. Today was a big timing day and I got that down, and I was also throwing some short boxes before the game, just really working on the curveball and the change-up. Those pitches were there, and that allowed me to get through this lineup,” DeBlasio said. “The approach was to just keep the ball low, and I knew the offspeed had to be there. I knew I couldn’t only rely on a fastball against these guys because eventually they would sit on it and time it up. The fact that the offspeed was there allowed me to play off the fastball. If I had to go up in the zone with the fastball I could do that, too.”
Absegami (9-3, 6-1 Cape-Atlantic League National) jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning when Sam Austin singled, stole second and scored on Matt Johansen’s double, and later Johansen came around to score on a wild pitch. In the second, three of the first four hitters reached base, setting the stage for Gargione. He cranked the first pitch he saw into the gap in right-center field, chasing home three runs and giving the Braves a commanding 5-0 lead.
“I was just looking for the first-pitch fastball, that’s been my thing all season so far,” he said. “I got the pitch I liked, up in the zone, drove it to the gap and helped the team. It felt good. I went 0-for-4 (Monday) and that strikeout in the first inning — I was pretty upset with myself and I knew I needed to get a big hit in that situation.”
“Things haven’t been going well for us the past few games, but today we got big hits and that’s what we were missing,” Mejia said. “We missed that against Hammonton, we missed that against Cape May Tech. We had bases loaded quite a few times in those games but weren’t able to get that key hit. That was the difference today, we were able to get guys in scoring position and get them in.”
It started to become clear around the fourth inning that DeBlasio had something special going on. But neither he nor his teammates or coaches were about to say anything for fear of upsetting the baseball gods. There’s no bigger jinx, it seems, in the game than mentioning to a pitcher that he has a no-hitter going.
“I didn’t want anybody to mention it, but I knew in the fourth inning. For some reason I was just thinking to myself that I had a no-hitter going, but I just kept telling myself every inning I went out there not to think about it, and I didn’t. I just kept shoving. It feels good. I’ve always been putting a lot of hard work into my pitching and this is the epitome of seeing it pay off,” DeBlasio said. “Holy Spirit is a competitive team so it was a challenge. I knew I had to stay in it mentally. I knew that if I let up at any point or if I didn’t take them seriously enough they could creep back into the game.”
“We had an idea but I didn’t find out until about the fourth inning. He did a great job. He came after guys, his fastball was on point and he kept them off balance with his breaking pitches. Early on he was throwing some pitches high but he made the adjustment, and that’s how he was able to keep these guys off balance. When he’s doing that, he can be a very effective pitcher,” Mejia said. “It’s one of those things, you know it’s happening but nobody wants to say anything. You keep it quiet and keep things moving. I knew he had an idea but I didn’t want to say anything. He threw a great game against Hammonton last week but ended up getting sick on Thursday night and hasn’t practiced since. My idea of bringing him in today was to throw him maybe two or three innings and go right to the bullpen. But, what was I going to do? I didn’t say a word to him the whole game, he was cruising. At that point, what are you going to say to the guy? Keep doing what you’re doing, that’s about it. I’m proud of him, he did a great job and this was a huge win for us. We’ve been struggling a little bit lately and it’s been hard to get key hits, but today we were able to do that.”
Absegami picked up two more runs in the fourth on a two-run single by Austin, and pushed the lead to 8-0 in the sixth when courtesy runner Manny Torres scored on an infield error. Austin, Gargione, Johansen, DeBlasio and Vraj Sheth each had two hits, and Gargione and Johansen combined for six of Absegami’s seven RBIs. The Braves also had five stolen bases, including two by Austin.
The Braves are hoping they can keep the good vibes going through a pretty tough stretch of games coming up, starting with a matchup against undefeated Buena on Thursday that will determine first place — for the time being — in the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference standings. Absegami has two games against Buena, then has to face Cedar Creek and Atlantic Tech in the first week of May.
“We’re in a good spot right now, as long as we stay focused,” Gargione said. “(On Monday) we weren’t focused and we let that game slip away from us. Today we came out focused, (DeBlasio) threw a helluva game, the bats came alive. As long as we stay focused we can go far this year.”
“This is when things have to turn up a little bit, and it’s going to be about the little things. We have to make sure we’re doing things like that double play we turned to end the game. We just have to make plays, get key hits with guys in scoring position and play situational baseball,” Mejia said. “We have to make sure we’re supporting our pitchers. For us, like a lot of teams, we don’t have a lot of numbers. We have a good group of 11 or 12 guys, but our bench is not very deep. So we have to be able to count on the guys we have to get us through and continue to push forward. Things got tough for us the last week or so, but we’re finding a way to push through it.”
DeBlasio said he’ll be ready for his next start, which could come Monday against Buena.
“My mindset right now is enjoy today, forget it happened tomorrow and in the next game just have the same approach — have my offspeed stuff down, my timing down, my mind clear,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy this in the moment, but the next game is coming.”
What’s next: Absegami hosts Buena on Thursday at 4 p.m. Holy Spirit hosts St. Joseph Academy on Friday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays