By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — For years, Margate and Hammonton did battle in the Atlantic County Baseball League, including many times in the championship series.
These two storied rivals are going at it again, this time in the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League’s semifinal round. The new league supplanted the old ACBL and this is the first year Margate has joined the new league. All the Hurricanes did was win the regular-season title and garner the No. 1 seed, but after Hammonton’s 3-2 upset victory on Monday, the Canes were facing elimination on Tuesday night at Hammonton Lake Park.
Head coach Jason Law handed the ball to former Cherry Hill East High and Stony Brook University standout Nick DiEva, and all he did was dominate the Hot Shots from start to finish. He tallied 15 strikeouts in a complete game and carried a no-hitter into the fifth before it was broken up with a solo home run by Jon Gonzalez. That was all DiEva surrendered, though, as Margate cruised to an 8-1 win over the No. 4 Hot Shots, setting up tonight’s winner-takes-all Game 3 at Jerome Avenue Park in Margate at 7 p.m. The winner of tonight’s game takes on No. 3 Northfield, which swept second-seeded South Jersey Surf in the other semifinal, in the Championship Series beginning Monday at the higher seed. A Best-of-5 series will determine the new champion, as the Surf’s two-year reign at the top is now over.
“There was only one way to go about it. It was an elimination game, there were no other options (than to dominate). That was my approach,” DiEva said. “(Gonzalez) hit that one curveball, and that was a mistake on my part, but everything was working. I didn’t even have to use the change-up today, everything was just there. Sometimes it’s like that, sometimes it’s a little bit harder. That’s a good team and I couldn’t take them lightly. That’s a good win for us.”
“He’s awesome. He was the perfect guy for tonight. He’s been ready to go since we got the last out last week (in the quarterfinals),” Law said. “When he pitches he’s fired up and ready to go and his personality exudes energy — and we feed off that. Our bats were ready to go because he was so fired up. He’s great.”
The Canes (20-6) desperately needed a great pitching performance for two reasons — they had to bounce back from a gut-wrenching loss in Game 1 in which they left the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh; and they were up against one of the best pitchers in the league in Hammonton’s John Kasper, who last week twirled a complete-game two-hitter to eliminate Absecon in the quarterfinals.
“He’s very good and has had a very good year this year, and was coming off a really good start last week with a two-hitter,” Law said of Kasper, a Rutgers-Camden right-hander and former Gloucester Catholic Ram. “We went in with the approach that we like to hit. We’re a swinging team and an offensive-minded team. We knew he was going to throw strikes and we were looking for strikes.”
Margate got the offense going early with a solo home run in the top of the third by former Mainland Regional High star Brody Levin, and later in the inning Monny Strickland stroked a two-out RBI single to center to give the Canes a 2-0 lead. Eventually the lead grew to 4-0 in the fourth inning on an error and an RBI double by former Absegami star Sam Daggers, and that was plenty for DiEva. Hammonton (16-10) never really threatened after the home run in the fifth.
“There was no pressure. This is our first-year back and we’re privileged for that, and we want to make a statement coming back that this is how the ‘Canes do it,” DiEva said. “We want to keep that tradition alive of just that winning spirit and having fun playing baseball. That’s what we like to do and that’s why we do it.”
Strickland, a former star player at Egg Harbor Township High, added a three-run homer to left-center in the top of the seventh to put the game on ice.
“They came in and closed the door on us (Monday). We left a lot of guys on base, which is very uncharacteristic of us, and (Tuesday) was not like that. We were aggressive, our barrels found the ball a little bit better today — but that’s baseball. You’re going to take some good swings and not hit well one day, then take good swings and hammer them the next. That’s why we play a three-game series instead of just one game,” Law said. “The respectful rivalry between Margate and Hammonton has gone on forever. We’ve played each other in elimination games many times, and (tonight) will be no different. Everybody is going to give it everything they have and lay it all out on the table.”
What’s next: Hammonton at Margate, 7 p.m., Game 3 of best-of-3 league semifinals. Winner plays No. 3 Northfield in the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League Championship Series beginning Monday.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays