There’s an old saying in sports that in order to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Seven of the eight teams involved in the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League playoffs know exactly what the task in front of them is, and they know the road to a title runs through Birch Grove Park in Northfield, home of the South Jersey Surf.
The Surf won the title last year in the inaugural season of the SJSSBL, and this year rolled to a 17-3 record to secure the No. 1 seed in the eight-team playoffs, which begin tonight. The Surf will host No. 8 Egg Harbor Township at 7 p.m. in the first game of a best-of-3 quarterfinals series. EHT got past No. 9 Galloway late last week in the “play-in” round to secure its spot in the postseason. In the other play-in game, the Ocean City Water Dogs outlasted the Somers Point Captains, 1-0, to grab the overall No. 7 seed.
The first-round matchups include the Surf vs. EHT, No. 7 Ocean City at the No. 2 Buena Blue Dawgs, the No. 6 Hammonton Hot Shots visiting No. 3 Absecon Outlaws, and No. 4 Northfield Cardinals will take on No. 5 Ventnor Bay Sox tonight at Fehrle Field in Somers Point. The winners of these series advance to next week’s best-of-3 semifinals, and the championship series — a Monday-through-Friday, best-of-5 format — begins on Aug. 1 at the higher seed.
The Surf have lost to only two teams this year — Buena and Ventnor. Buena got the better of the Surf in the season opener, then the Surf reeled off 15 straight wins to take control of the league standings. The streak was finally ended by Buena on July 11 in a 5-1 Blue Dawgs win, spearheaded by former Buena star and former Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim farmhand Denny Brady. Brady fanned six in three innings and didn’t allow a run while Jimmy Kurtz led an eight-hit attack with a hit and two RBIs.
The Surf have been crushing the ball all year, to the tune of a .324 team batting average. Former EHT standout catcher Dante DiPalma is hitting .391 with three home runs and 13 RBIs while Williamstown High star Caden Dulin has five home runs, 16 RBIs and 18 runs scored. The Surf have scored 138 run in just 20 games, and average of nearly seven runs per game.
Buena does have the best pitcher in the league in Brady — who was playing AA ball as recently as last year — and the Blue Dawgs come into the playoffs on a roll, having won five straight and 12 of their last 15 games. During the recent five-game winning streak, Buena has outscored its opponents 35-13.
Another team to watch is Absecon. The Outlaws have won five of their last seven games and have some solid pitching, posting a 3.32 team ERA. The Absecon staff has struck out 132 batters in 145 innings while surrendering just 67 walks.
Northfield is another interesting team to watch. The Cardinals have won four of their last six and hit the ball well, posting a .298 team batting average. They can also pitch, having posted a 3.37 team ERA, led by Julian Costa, who made a big-time bid for league MVP this year. As a pitcher, he has a 1.00 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 21 innings, and at the plate he’s batting .364 with 20 hits, three home runs and 19 RBIs.
Here’s a quick look at the playoff matchups. Games begin tonight at 7 p.m. at the home field of the higher seed, except the Northfield-Ventnor series, which will begin at Fehrle Field in Somers Point.
No. 8 Egg Harbor Township Eagles (8-12) at No. 1 South Jersey Surf (17-3)
No. 7 Ocean City Water Dogs (9-9) at No. 2 Buena Blue Dawgs (15-6)
No. 6 Hammonton (10-11) at No. 3 Absecon (13-8)
No. 5 Ventnor (12-9) at No. 4 Northfield (in Somers Point) (13-8)