By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Bridgeton High baseball coach Mike Valella was intent on denying junior utility man Cam Dunkle the opportunity throughout his four-year high school career. Dunkle, the fastest player in the Bulldogs’ program, could beg and plead all he wanted, wasn’t gonna happen. Valella was steadfast on that.
But the way Saturday morning’s game against Atlantic City at Mainland High’s Coaches vs. Cancer showcase was going — and given how mightily the Bulldogs’ offense was struggling in the first few games of the season — Valella figured, well, the seventh inning of a tie game was as good a time as any to give it a shot.
With the score knotted at 6 in the top of the seventh and after having walked, stolen second base and then third, Dunkle was just 90 feet away from scoring the go-ahead run with two outs. Valella had a quick talk with leadoff hitter Jorge Valentin and said under no circumstances should he swing the bat on either of the first two pitches he saw. On that second pitch, Dunkle got a walking lead and sprinted home. The pitch went outside and in the dirt, allowing Dunkle to score, and he came on in relief in the bottom of the seventh to earn the 7-6 victory, the first of the year for the Bulldogs.
“We agreed upon it. It was fun. He was just telling me to steal home, and I stole it. It feels good,” said Dunkle, who had a great freshman year for Bridgeton but lost his sophomore campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m happy my team won and we won as a team. It feels really good, actually, our first win of the season. We’re getting better and better each game, and that’s good to see. This is something good that will get us going.
“He’s the fastest kid in our program and since he’s been a ninth-grader he’s been bugging me to steal home. I told him that it was never going to happen on my watch,” Valella said. “Before he led off the inning I told him had the green light to steal second, and their pitcher had a little bit of a slower move to home plate. When he got to third, that’s when I had a conference with my batter and told him on the second pitch (Dunkle) was going to steal home. I told (Valentin) to just keep the bat on his shoulder the first two pitches. I was confident he was going to get in. It was a little closer than I thought, but I’m glad he made it.
“He had 25 hits as a freshman; today he caught six innings behind the plate then he comes in to finish it on the mound, he steals home plate for the go-ahead run. It was a fun time for him, and a fun time for all of us.”
Bridgeton (1-2, 0-2 Cape-Atlantic League National) was completely shut down through the first four innings by Atlantic City senior Ryan Master, who didn’t allow a hit and fanned 10 before he had to come out because he reached his pitch limit for the week. These days, there are pitch limits per game and no pitcher can throw more than 150 pitches in a week, so Master had 70 left coming into today after throwing 80 pitches earlier in the week.
Atlantic City (0-3, 0-2 CAL American) had built up a 4-0 lead with single runs in the first four innings before the Bulldogs rallied for six runs in the top of the sixth to take a 6-4 lead. That rally was highlighted by RBI singles from Elias Reyes Gallardo and Jabril Brown, a bases-loaded walk by Dominic Ketterer and a two-run double from Valentin. But the Vikings stormed right back in the bottom of the sixth, tying the game at 6 on a sacrifice fly by Zach Dinter and a bases-loaded walk to catcher Drew Storr.
Dunkle came on in relief to stop the bleeding, setting up his seventh-inning heroics.
“The first two games of the year we lost by a combined 41-0 and only had two infield hits, and I think we were being no-hit into the sixth inning today. So this shows a lot of character,” Valella said. “It’s a testament to their character, not giving up and playing for the name on the front of the jersey. I’m so proud of them. I told them that in my 19 years coaching here this is one of the biggest wins I’ve been a part of. From coming back from down 4-0, that was a big character win for us.”
Valentin went 2-for-4 with a run, a double, three stolen bases and two RBIs to lead Bridgeton, while Atlantic City got two hits each from Master and Jared Avril. Avril also finished with three stolen bases.
What’s next: Bridgeton hosts Camden Academy Charter on Monday at 4 p.m. Atlantic City hosts Ocean City on Monday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays