By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Parking spots were at a premium on Friday afternoon at Egg Harbor Township, as fans were eager to see a matchup between the host Eagles and St. Augustine Prep, two of the state’s top teams.
The Hermits came into the game having won seven straight to start the season — including a big victory over the state’s then-No. 1 team, Delbarton, last Saturday — and beat No. 4 EHT, 5-2, to keep its hold on the top spot (which it took over after the win over Delbarton) in the nj.com state-wide rankings.
The Hermits got a first-inning home run from shortstop Josh Hood, then got some breathing room by plating two runs in the top of the sixth to make a winner out of starting pitcher Cole Vanderslice, who didn’t have his best stuff but still grinded through five innings before giving way to Jack Billings, who picked up the save by pitching scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh.
“It’s always tough to score runs on this field, even with the wind blowing out, but I knew somebody was going to catch one today, and I’m glad it was us in the first inning,” Hermits coach Mike Bylone said of Hood’s blast to straightaway center field. “I’ve been around long enough to know this is a big game for everybody, but these kids are still learning. They’ve responded well to (the pressure). It’s tough, but we actually embrace it. It makes for good baseball, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“I definitely didn’t have my best stuff, compared to last weekend. It was a little bit colder and I had the wind blowing in my face, but I just came out and fought as hard as I could. That’s always been a big part of my game, I know I need to stay mentally focused and mentally tough. When EHT is over there making noise, I know it’s there, I just tried to zone it out and focus on what I could do,” said Vanderslice, who got the win over Delbarton and allowed just one hit in five innings while striking out five and walking four vs. EHT. “We just need to take every game as seriously as we took Delbarton last weekend and as seriously as we took this one. No matter who we are playing, we just have to come out with the same intensity. I don’t think anybody can beat us if we have our best stuff.”
St. Augustine Prep (8-0, 5-0 Cape-Atlantic League American Conference) tacked on single runs in the second and third innings to build off Hood’s home run, as Joe Bonczek launched a sacrifice fly to deep left in the second and Billings added an RBI single up the middle in the third. EHT (8-1, 3-1) responded when Angel Murray scored on a wild pitch in the top of the third to cut the lead to 3-1. It could have been much worse for the Hermits, as the Eagles had the bases loaded two batters earlier, but Vanderslice got a ground-ball fielder’s choice, and the trail runner on the wild pitch was nailed at the plate for the third out.
“Having the bases loaded and getting out of that fairly unscathed was pretty big. Cole is a competitor. He wanted to finish the game, like he does every time. (EHT) is a very well-coached team and they know to be patient. They had really good approaches, so anytime we can come out of EHT with a win, we’re lucky,” Bylone said. “Anytime we come to this field, it’s always a tight game. Either way, win or lose, they’ve always been tight games here, so you have to play your best on this field. Getting off to that early lead helps with Cole on the mound, and Cole will be the first to admit he didn’t really have his best stuff today, but he gutted it out. Everybody was eligible (to pitch) today and this was a game we wanted to win. We’re not good enough right now to look ahead to tomorrow, so this was a big game for us.”
Egg Harbor Township shaved the lead to 3-2 in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by pinch hitter Trey Henry, but St. Augustine answered with a pair of runs in the sixth to extend the lead to 5-2. Doug Stasuk, pinch running for Gerry Peacock, scored on a wild pitch before Kenny Levari laced an RBI single to right. Mike Dodd allowed four hits in three innings while striking out six for EHT, and reliever Collin McLaughlin racked up six more strikeouts over the final four frames.
“We have arms, and I told everybody that at the beginning of the year. Coming into today, we were 8-0 because of our arms. We weren’t 8-0 because of our offense. The capability is there offensively, we just haven’t played to our potential, but it will happen. Some people say the weather is tough, and it is. Once it starts to warm up kids will get more comfortable hitting. We were out here the other day taking batting practice and it was about 38 degrees. I think that has a little bit to do with it because we’re definitely not hitting to our capabilities right now, but we will,” said Eagles coach Bryan Carmichael. “We punched them out 12 times today, and that’s a good baseball team right there. I think we showed we can pitch with them. I don’t think Mike Dodd had his best stuff today. The reason we went with him is because he can spin it a little bit and keep them off balanced. You saw that from him early on, but after Hood hit that home run I think it changed things for him a little bit. But Collin came in pumping strikes and did what he had to do. We’ll just keep working and get better. When you lose, you have to learn a lesson. I think we learned some things today, and we’ll address them.”
Bylone said he was impressed with what he saw from EHT.
“I think they are a very good ballclub and we’ll probably see them again. They’re scrappy,” he said. “Every time we play them it’s one or two runs, three runs, games like that. Bryan is a great coach and runs a great program, and we were just looking to come out on top today.”
Carmichael said he was happy his team competed so well against the state’s top team, but he wants to see the bats begin to come alive to support the outstanding pitching the Eagles have gotten through the first three weeks of the season.
“We’re a good baseball team and I think we showed we belong here today. We just have to come up with the big hit in the big situation, and that will come with time. We have a lot of young guys, guys who are just getting their first experience in the varsity lineup. We have a couple of guys who are struggling right now, but we just have to be patient and keep working at the things we do. We’ll definitely be there at the end,” he said. “I’m happy with what I saw today. I told the kids before the game that we were going to get some answers to some questions today. I think a couple of our deficiencies reared their ugly head a little bit today, and we’ll get back to work. The best thing about this is we play again tomorrow morning against a good baseball team. We’re going to Bridgewater-Raritan tomorrow, we’re going to get on the bus, and we’re going to have to pick ourselves up and put this one behind us real fast.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays