By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
FRANKLINVILLE — If, someday, you happen to come across an old baseball coach sitting on a park bench talking to himself, muttering incoherently under his breath, there’s likely one root cause of his mental state. Two-out walks.
Nothing drives a baseball coach crazier than giving a free pass when the inning is almost over. On a hot Friday afternoon, Mainland Regional senior Nick Wagner worked a two-out walk in the top of the fifth inning with his team trailing host Delsea, 4-2. That opened the flood gates, and the upstart Mustangs — the No. 9 seed in the South Jersey Group 3 state playoffs — rallied for four runs to take a 6-4 lead.
Starting pitcher Cohen Cook did the rest, shutting down the Crusaders over the final three innings as Mainland went from having a nice playoff run that would largely be forgotten in the years to come to being sectional champions, and being remembered forever in Mustangs lore.
It has been the most unlikely of postseason runs for Mainland (13-13), a team that entered the playoffs with a less-than-impressive 9-13 record. The Stangs entered the season having lost 4-of-6, didn’t make the Diamond Classic, didn’t make the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament. It should have been a first- or second-round loss in states and thanks for coming out, see you at the banquet.
But something sparked in this team, and even the players had trouble defining exactly what that was.
“I honestly have no idea,” senior left fielder Joe Sheeran said when trying to explain Mainland’s now five-game winning streak that stretches back to a regular-season finale win over Holy Spirit. “We knew we had it in us. The regular season was a little bit of trouble for us, but this postseason we just stuck together and won. This is unbelievable. This senior year, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“There have been a whole bunch of ups and downs this season, but we’re used to it now,” said Brian Perez, a senior who was on the bench to start the season but now is the Mustangs’ starting third baseman after a complete overhaul of the infield defense. “We just kept the energy, and we just had to keep putting the bat on the ball. That’s the ups and downs of baseball, we just had to stick together and see how it would turn out.”
“The way I always look at it is, I don’t think about putting a winning streak together. I treat it as a series of one-game tournaments. The seeds don’t really matter, all that tells you is where the game is. Once you get that out of your head it’s just a matter of showing up and competing with confidence,” said Mainland coach Billy Kern. “Jake (Lodgek, who beat Hammonton in the semis) has been throwing the ball well, and so has Cohen, so I felt good about our 1-2 punch. It was just a matter of making the routine plays. That was our issue throughout the season, we couldn’t defend against those crooked numbers. But we started to pick it up and our confidence came with that. I’m so proud of this team. When you have a down year like we did, to finish with the same number of guys you started with, and they all love each other, that’s a testament to their character.”
After falling behind 3-1 early, Mainland cut the deficit to 3-2 with a run in the second on an RBI single by Jake Blum. But in the third, Delsea (20-7) extended its lead to 4-2 on an infield error.
Then came the fifth inning, and everything changed. George Starr, Delsea’s No. 1 relief pitcher, came on to spell Ryan Harrison, and got the first two hitters of the top of the fifth to fly out. But then Wagner worked a walk, Cook singled, and Brady Blum walked to load the bases. Up stepped Jack Haines, who ended up having the best game of his high school career. He launched a three-run double to the gap in left-center, clearing the bases and putting Mainland up for good, 5-4. Haines finished with three hits, including two doubles, a pair of runs scored and three RBIs. He had nearly half as many hits as Delsea did as a team.
“Jack Haines. He was unbelievable today. He was 3-for-4, and that (bases-loaded double) really broke it open for us,” Sheeran said. “I’m speechless right now. In football it happened, and now baseball. I’m at a loss for words right now. Going up 1-0 in the first was big, but then they got three runs. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I knew we had it in us and that we could pull it out.”
“A lot of times these games are won or lost on a mistake, so I was happy to see both teams played a pretty clean game and it was offense that won the game,” Kern said. “Haines came up big, we bunted well, Wagner got one down and Sheeran got one down. When you’re asking seniors and your big hitters to bunt, and they do it without fail, that’s a sign of guys who are totally bought in and selfless. We have 22 of them in the dugout right now who feel really good about themselves.”
Cook, after a rough start, settled in and pitched a tremendous game. He allowed just seven hits in seven innings, struck out five, walked only one and allowed just one earned run.
“I have confidence to put Cohen Cook at any of the nine positions and he’d be a great option for me,” Kern said. “Even as the pitch count was climbing he was getting stronger and getting better, so it was going to be his game until the state told me I had to take him out.”
“Cohen is a monster,” Perez said. “He overcomes whatever is put in front of him, and he’s been like that all season.”
“I just tried to continue to throw strikes, let them hit the ball and let the defense behind me get the outs. I was just trying to do my job — throw strikes — and let them do it behind me. This is awesome. Nobody thought we’d be out of the second round, so this is an awesome feeling,” Cook said. “We just stuck together through it all and just got it rolling at the right time. We didn’t have as much energy as we should have (early in the game), but we got it going on offense and that gave us the energy we needed, and we finished strong.”
Mainland now turns its attention to Middletown North on Monday in the Group 3 semifinals. The Lions were the No. 3 seed in Central Jersey Group 3 and handled No. 4 Lawrence, 10-7, in their championship game.
“This is crazy. Last year, I was playing down (on junior varsity) just to get some reps, and now I’m up here trying to win a state championship,” Perez said. “I’ve been able to work my way up and earn my spot in the starting lineup, and it means a lot to be here with my team and winning a championship.”
“It’s all just perseverance and believing that it was in there. We didn’t change anything with how we approached each game. We didn’t change how we scouted, we didn’t change how we practiced. There were a couple of personnel changes, but it was more about believing that it was in there and that we could put together seven good innings of baseball. We’re throwing the ball well right now and we’re getting timely hitting, and that’s the recipe you want in late May and June,” Kern said. “We’re about a year ahead of schedule right now, which is really nice. We’re going to lose three really good seniors, but we haven’t thrown a pitch on the mound with a senior all year, so we’re going to be tough to score against next year. We’re going to enjoy this and go compete like crazy on Monday.”
What’s next: Mainland vs. Middletown North, Group 3 state semifinals, Monday. Time and location TBD.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays