By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — The Mainland Regional High baseball team is never going to be the kind of squad that launches three-run homers or has a bunch of arms that can top out at 95 miles-per-hour. The Mustangs are just not built that way.
What they will do, however, is scratch and claw all game long, and if you give the Stangs an opportunity to win a game late, they’ll take advantage of it nearly every time.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mainland climbed back from a 3-1 deficit, scoring two runs in the top of the seventh on an error and an infield single to steal a 5-3 victory from rival Ocean City. The host Red Raiders were in control until an unlikely hero emerged for the Mustangs in the seventh.
Senior Bryan Perez came off the bench in the sixth inning to play third base as starting third baseman Tanner Leven was called on to pitch, and in his only at-bat in the seventh Perez was plunked in the head with a pitch. He sprinted down to first base — without his glasses, which were busted and lying at home plate — and three batters later he was crossing home plate with the eventual winning run. He also made two plays at the hot corner in the bottom of the seventh to quell any thoughts of a Red Raiders comeback. That allowed Cohen Cook to pitch a 1-2-3 seventh to secure the save.
“We knew this was going to be a tough game, they’re a good team over there, but we put some hits together. I’m excited. This was a good win,” said senior outfielder Joe Sheeran. “Bryan Perez, that’s our guy. He’s very unselfish. He was sitting on the bench for five innings, comes in and makes two great plays at third, gets hit in the face — he’s a team player. I love that kid.”
“We were deciding if we should put Tanner back to third after he was on the mound, but Brian had already made a few plays, he’s a senior and he wore one in the brim of his helmet, so he kind of earned getting a shot at that last inning, and of course the ball finds him right away in the seventh. Bryan has done a great job for us so far this year,” said Mainland coach Billy Kern.
Mainland (3-1, 2-1 Cape-Atlantic League American) took an early — as early as you can get — 1-0 lead when leadoff batter Christian Elliott cranked the first pitch of the game for a solo home run. But Ocean City (2-3, 0-3 CAL American) responded in the bottom of the first when Jack Hoag walked, stole second and came around to score on an RBI single to left by Duke McCarron. The Red Raiders added two more in the second on an RBI single by Shawn Repetti and an infield error, but then Mainland starter Jake Lodgek settled in and twirled three scoreless innings. He allowed five hits and two earned runs, walked four and struck out eight in five innings of work.
“Lodgek, he’s a fighter. He’s definitely helped us coming over from Holy Spirit,” Sheeran said. “Once they tied it up and then took the lead, I knew he wasn’t going to fold. He’s a strong kid. I saw a lot more strikes and a lot more fight in him (as the game wore on). He was walking a few guys early, and that’s going to happen, but then he threw strikes and we fielded the ball, and that’s all there is to it.”
“I just settled in,” Lodgek explained. “Our boys were getting hits and that got me hyped and locked in. I battled. I was locked in and just went out there and gave it my all. My curveball was helping me a lot and I just felt like I had to start pounding the strike zone because the boys behind me were making plays. I just took a deep breath (after they took the lead), went back out there and did my thing.”
“You just have to keep it close in the early innings in these rivalry games because it always feels like it’s going to come down to the last six outs anyway,” Kern said. “I was happy with the way our team competed — especially Jake, coming back after a couple of bad bounces his way early on then throwing up a bunch of zeroes the rest of the way.”
Mainland got a run back in the top of the fourth, cutting the deficit to 3-2 on a sacrifice fly by Will La Pointe, then tied the game at 3 in the top of the sixth by playing some small ball. Sheeran led off with a walk and cleanup hitter Nick Wagner laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. Sheeran then went to third on a passed ball and trotted home on a single up the middle by Ethan Mitnick.
“It was one of those scenarios where we were in the middle of our lineup in that inning, we got a guy on and our No. 4 hitter comes up, it’s Wagner, and you want him to hit one over the fence, but the situation called for the bunt, he got it down and Mitnick picked us up right behind him,” Kern said. “It’s one of those scenarios as a coach when it works out you look good, and when it doesn’t you tip your hat to the other team. But I was happy with Nick and Ethan executing in the sixth inning to tie the game.”
After splitting the season-opening series with St. Augustine Prep, Mainland has won two straight to climb to within a game of conference leading Egg Harbor Township. The Stangs are back in action today at 1 p.m. as they host Ocean City in the final game of the home-and-home series. The Stangs travel to Atlantic City on Friday before a tough stretch that includes series against Vineland and Egg Harbor Township sandwiching a road game at Highland.
“This is not the same Mainland team as last year, but I like this team a lot,” Sheeran said. “We went to Florida and got closer together and now we have a lot more chemistry.”
“We’ve seen flashes of what we can do and what we can be when we pick it up, and when we field the baseball,” Kern said. “We’ve struggled with walks a little bit and we have to be a little more clean, but we’re as advanced offensively as we’ve been in several years. So I’m happy with where we are, putting the ball in play, we run the bases well. We have some things to clean up, but I’m happy with the way we’re throwing the ball. We have a lot of guys who throw strikes, so if we can throw it and catch it a little better I’ll feel good over the next couple of weeks.”
What’s Next: Mainland hosts Ocean City, today, 1 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays