By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
DELRAN — Before the state playoffs began, in his preview of the South Jersey Group 2 baseball playoffs, nj.com veteran sportswriter Kevin Minnick labeled Cedar Creek as a “dark horse” to win the section — meaning, keep your eye on the Pirates because they have the talent to pull it off despite being a No. 6 seed.
The Pirates have used that as motivation, even carrying around a black hobby horse — the kind little kids use to simulate riding a horse — and after an 8-3 victory over No. 3 Delran on Thursday, Cedar Creek is now just one victory away from a spot in the sectional championship game. Cedar Creek travels to No. 2 West Deptford on Tuesday for a semifinal matchup. The other semifinal features top-seeded Haddonfield against either No. 4 Audubon or No. 5 Haddon Heights.
The Delran Bears didn’t stand much chance on Thursday because Cedar Creek junior Luke Vaks was simply dealing, using a fastball with velocity in the upper 80s and low 90s mixed with a knee-buckling slider. He used 109 of the allotted 110 pitches allowed, struck out 14, walked just two and gave up just one earned run. Steven Kaenzig came on in relief in the seventh and registered the final two batters with ease. Even an hour rain delay prior to the game could slow Vaks down.
“I felt great. I just want to be out here with my boys. I didn’t want today to be the last day, we want to keep going, all the way, even if it means we’re playing on prom day, doesn’t matter, let’s go,” Vaks said. “We had a rain delay and I felt awesome coming back out of that, which is kind of surprising. I had thrown about 15 pitches already (before the rain), came back out and still felt great.”
“The mindset (with Luke) is to just come in and pound the zone. If he has everything working, we’re absolutely going to work everything, just try to get ahead of hitters at all times. He was getting deep into his legs and pumping the ball. It makes my job pretty easy. That’s his expectation now, he’s been dealing like this all season and he’s our guy,” said his catcher, sophomore Dan Giovannantonio. “On the bus, we were all locked in and he was absolutely ready the second we got onto the field. And we’ve come around in giving him run support, and that’s huge. When we get two runs in the first inning he’s way more comfortable on the mound, and you could see it.”
Added Cedar Creek coach Ryan Flannery, “When he’s dealing, we believe we’re one of the better teams in South Jersey. Anytime he’s on the mound we have confidence to go out and compete with any team, and it’s always good getting run support when he’s on the bump. We’ve been on the other end of that, seeing a guy like Vaks across the way, and it is demoralizing, so it’s always a good thing when you run Luke Vaks out there. And, when you give him a four- or five-run lead, it’s pretty settling in our dugout.”
The Pirates (16-9) jumped on Delran (18-5) early, scoring a pair of runs in the top of the first on an RBI single by Sean Brady and a Bears error, then adding another run in the second when Nathan Goodrich scored on a wacky play. With two outs and the bases loaded, Brady fisted a 3-and-2 pitch and lofted a humpback liner down the first-base line. Delran’s pitcher dove, scooped up the ball and tried to tag Brady, but Brady leaped over the tag and reached first safely. Cedar Creek then broke things open with three runs in the third to take a 6-0 lead. Kaenzig knocked in a pair of runs with a single to center and Vaks helped himself out with a sacrifice fly. The Bears got as close as 7-3 with a pair of runs in the fifth, but the way Vaks was pitching that was just a blip on the radar.
“We’ve faced adversity, we’ve won tough games against good teams and we’ve battled against good teams, and I feel like today was one of those days where we could just go out there and say, ‘we’ve got this.’ We knew we had it,” Vaks said. “I felt like I could do anything today. This is awesome. I can’t even explain how great it feels.”
Brady finished 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs and Joe Hamill went 2-for-4 with two runs scored, while Elian Castillo and Goodrich each scored a pair of runs.
Flannery said the whole “dark horse” mantra has taken hold, and he’s enjoying it because he said his team was a little flat at the end of the regular season.
“We thought about it, bringing out the dark horse, because Kevin Minnick had us labeled as the dark horse in South Jersey Group 2. We needed some energy. The last two games of the season we were kind of going through the motions and we needed a little juice in the dugout, so we ended up bringing it,” he said. “We’ve talked about the potential of this team all year. We had some injuries early in the year and we’ve been inconsistent with our play. We have nine losses, against good competition, but this is what we talked about — we’re capable of doing this, the kids are starting to believe now, and once you get into the playoffs it’s a new season, and I think they’ve really bought into that.”
The Pirates know what they are up against next week. If they want to win a South Jersey title they’ll have to knock off the top two seeds in West Deptford and Haddonfield, teams that are used to being in championship games.
“Making a run in the playoffs, you need pitching, and we feel like we have three aces and a handful of guys who can come in and get outs against any lineup. That’s never been our issue this year, our issue has been fielding and getting runs, and — knock on wood — the last two games we were able to play clean defensive games and get runs early, which is a big relief,” Flannery said. “I talked to them after the game about this morning, and how they felt this morning waking up, and to cherish those moments because we get another opportunity on Tuesday. And just understanding and living in the moment. Moving forward, we’re playing a good West Deptford team that has been there before. This is uncharted territory for us, so, let the kids celebrate today, then tomorrow it’s back to being focused and locked in on beating a very good West Deptford team.”
Added Giovannantonio, “We’re embracing everything we get and we’re not taking a moment of it for granted.”
What’s next: No. 6 Cedar Creek travels to No. 2 West Deptford on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Delran’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays