By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
NORTHFIELD — Mainland baseball is one of those programs that, every year, seemingly, will somehow find ways to win several games they had no business winning.
In the 2022 season opener on Friday night at Birch Grove Park in Northfield — in one of the feature games of the Coaches vs. Cancer showcase event — the host Mustangs were in an early 5-0 hole and Clearview junior righthander Ethan Hahn was going through Mainland’s lineup like a hot knife through butter. He fanned eight of the first nine hitters and looked to be cruising to a complete game shutout victory.
But Mainland hung around just enough, getting a big two-run homer from first baseman Nick Wagner to cut the deficit to 5-3 in the bottom of the fourth. The Stangs still trailed, 8-5, heading into the bottom of the seventh. A misplayed fly ball down the right-field line off the bat of catcher Cole Campbell started things off in that frame, and that was just the break Mainland needed. The Stangs miraculously rallied to score four times in their final at-bat, beating Clearview 9-8 on a bases-loaded, one-out walk-off single by sophomore Christian Elliott.
“Coach came up to me before the at-bat, when (Clearview) was having a meeting at the mound, and he was like, ‘you’re going to finish this game.’ That’s what was going through my head, and I did it,” said Elliott, whose older brother, Mark, was a four-year started in center field for Mainland before graduating in 2021. “It just happened. It’s awesome. It’s surreal (to be in that situation).”
After Campbell reached second on that misplayed fly ball to right to start the seventh, Cohen Cook drove him home with a single to left to cut the deficit to 8-6. Sam Wood followed with an infield single and Brandon Sharkey laid down a beautiful bunt that he beat out for a hit to load the bases. A bloop single to left by Wagner made it 8-7, and Mainland tied the game on a crazy play where Ethan Mitnick drove a shot to deep center that was dropped, but turned into an out when Mitnick passed Wagner between first and second.
No matter, though. Clearview walked Rocco Barbella to load the bases, setting the stage for Elliott’s heroics.
“We were within striking distance there in the middle innings — I think the fourth, when we got three (runs), Nick Wagner’s home run kind of propelled us. Noah Meyers was just outstanding, keeping us in the game and keeping us within striking distance,” said Mainland coach Billy Kern. “All I said to our guys going into that last inning was, ‘try to get the tying run to the plate. If we can get the tying run to the plate, we have a shot, with one swing, to win it.’ We got it to 8-5, we got Sammy Wood up there at the plate and good things started to happen. You need some balls to fall, like that one in right field, but credit to our guys for competing. We struck out eight of the first nine outs of this game and the rest of the way just competed and put balls in play. Our young guys, too — sophomore Ethan Mitnick, sophomore Cohen Cook, sophomore Christian Elliott with the big hit. I think Brandon Sharkey’s bunt will go overlooked but it was fantastic — a lot of people contributed in that last inning to kind of snatch a win there.”
Meyers, a senior right-hander, came up huge for Mainland (1-0, 0-0 Cape-Atlantic League National), twirling four innings of relief and keeping the Stangs within striking distance.
“We were just battling. Our pitchers kept throwing strikes. We were struggling a little bit at the plate in the beginning of the game but then we started turning it on,” Elliott said. “Winning this first game means a lot, to be 1-0 is great for the team. I think we’re going to be pretty good this year. Our pitchers just need to keep throwing strikes and we have to do what we can at the plate.”
It was a tough loss for Cearview (0-1, 0-0 Tri-County Royal), the defending South Jersey Group 4 champion, but the Pioneers enjoyed a nice moment when Michael Flax — a two-time cancer survivor — blasted a three-run home run in the top of the second to give Clearview a 5-0 lead.
“I’ve played a million games on this field, and that ball carried to the batting cages out there (in left-center). That was a shot,” said Kern. “Michael, we’ve known about his story for a few years. He’s a great player — he hit another bullet besides that (home run). He had a fantastic day. Just the whole weekend — it’s emotional for a lot of these kids. Sometimes you don’t really get to see what some of these guys are going through at home until they are throwing out the first pitch because they want to recognize someone.
“So, we’re extremely proud of the work (Mainland assistant) Mike Edwards has done and what this event has grown into.”
What’s next: Mainland travels to Ocean City on Monday at 4 p.m. Clearview hosts GCIT on Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays