By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Cape-Atlantic League made a change to its baseball schedule this season, forcing teams to face conference rivals on back-to-back days in home-and-home series. It’s meant to create a more even playing field, as teams can’t use their best pitcher against the same opponent two weeks apart. In order to win a conference title, a team is going to have to prove it has pitching depth.

Egg Harbor Township has plenty of that, as the Eagles have shown this week — much to the chagrin of Millville, first up on EHT’s CAL American slate. On Monday, the Thunderbolts were shut out by senior Cam Flukey, who allowed just two hits while striking out eight over six innings in the Eagles’ 2-0 win.

On Tuesday afternoon, it was junior Justin Sweeney’s turn and he matched Flukey’s effort, allowing just four hits and two runs while striking out a career-high 13 batters to lead EHT to a tidy 6-2 win over the Bolts. That pushed EHT — a top-10 team in the state according to the nj.com rankings — to 4-0 on the young season.

Sweeney — a Rutgers University commit whose older brother, Jordan, plays for the Scarlet Knights — was on fire early, striking out the side in three straight innings to start the game. He really only ran into trouble in the top of the seventh, when Millville put together a two-run rally that chased Sweeney after 105 pitches, five less than the legal limit in New Jersey high school baseball for one game. Fellow junior Christian Rando came on in relief to retire the final batter and secure the win.

EHT junior Justin Sweeney struck out 13 and allowed just two runs in the Eagles’ win over Millville. (Glory Days photo/Sully)

“I felt great out there,” said Sweeney, who went 6 2/3 innings and didn’t walk a batter. “My arm felt great and I felt like I kept my velo late in the innings. My off-speed was working great today against a good hitting team. I knew what they were capable of, that they were good at swinging the bat. I’m proud of the team.”

“You really have to plan your pitching out and make sure you have the guys lined up the way you want to. Our first and No. 1 goal is to win our conference and lead our division, which ultimately gets us into the Diamond Classic, so we have to make sure we take care of those things. In order to do that, we have to make sure we have our guys lined up,” said EHT coach Bryan Carmichael. “Flukey does a great job yesterday in Game 1 (vs. Millville) and Sweeney today in Game 2. I have a lot of confidence in those guys. I’m not happy with the way some of the things happened around them today — we ended up making him have to work a lot harder than he should have (because of errors).”

Josh Mejia got EHT off to an early start with a home run, and the Eagles tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the third thanks to a couple of misplays by Millville’s defense. In the fourth inning, EHT extended its lead to 4-0 when Jay Salsbery led off with a single, reached second on an error, moved to third on a double-play ball and scored on a balk. The Eagles (4-0, 3-0 CAL American) tacked on a run in the fifth when Tristin Trivers scored on a wild pitch with two outs, and the lead reached 6-0 in the sixth when Jake Cagna doubled and then scored on an outfield throwing error after Mejia’s fly ball to right.

Millville (2-3, 1-2 CAL American) finally got on the board in the seventh as Sergio Droz led off with a single and scored ahead of C.J. Staniec’s RBI groundout. Matt Meiswinkle added another run-scoring groundout to make it 6-2 and after an infield error, Rando came on in relief and needed just six pitches to shut the door.

Sweeney said facing Millville on Monday had him fully prepared for how to deal with the Bolts’ lineup.  

“I saw them play in Ocean City on Friday and looked at their hitters then, and I got a lot of help from Cam. He pitched a good game yesterday and told me all about their hitters,” Sweeney said.

Millville second baseman Edgar Ramos turns a double play against EHT. (Glory Days photo/Sully)

Tuesday’s win was Sweeney’s second of the season, as he and the Eagles beat Vineland on April 4. In a little more than 11 innings so far, Sweeney has racked up 20 strikeouts against just two walks, and has allowed only two runs.  

“I’d be hard-pressed if there’s a better guy in South Jersey right now. He’s a competitor, he’s a bulldog, he wants the ball. He oozes confidence, and he just competes. You see it, he wants the ball. He’s going to be mad at me because I took him out of the game, but it was at that point. He was over 100 pitches. Yeah, we want to ride him, but to what extent? We’re not winning anything on April 12,” Carmichael said. “He’s a leader. He goes, we go. He’s a guy who wants the ball in the big games. I’m sure he’ll want the ball on Thursday against Williamstown, but unfortunately we have to follow the rules. If we can get the rest of the guys with the mindset he has — and we’re close, we’re getting there. It’s part of the process. We’re starting a lot of young guys. We have some young guys playing so there’s a little bit of a learning curve going on, so we need guys like Sweeney to step up and be the leader and show these guys how things are done in and out of the dugout.”

Sweeney said he wasn’t satisfied with the start he got off to last year and dedicated himself to getting stronger during the offseason so that he’d have more power in the later innings of games this year.

“I look at last year and I wasn’t off to a very hot start. Going into this year, my No. 1 goal was to start off strong, get my fastball command early. I’ve been working on that in all my bullpens. Our team has been playing great and there are a lot of young guys stepping up. I hit the weight room in the winter and worked with my body to make sure I could feel good later into games. I feel like one of the problems I felt last year was if I started getting my pitch count up, my body started getting fatigued. In those middle innings it’s important to keep my pitch count down,” he said. “My No. 1 thing is, just because it’s the fifth or sixth inning it doesn’t mean the game is over. My No. 1 goal is to go as long as I can to help the team out, keep pitching. With these conference games we have to conserve as much pitching as possible. I told myself, ‘don’t stop, keep it going.’ I told Carm, ‘throw me 110 pitches today, my arm is ready for it.’ I threw 105 and I would have loved to have thrown another five. That’s not the way it works, but I want to go out there and throw every inning. As many as I can.”

What’s next: EHT hosts Williamstown on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Millville hosts Mainland on Thursday at 4 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays