Staff Report

If the rest of the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League playoffs are anything like the opening night of the semifinals, local baseball fans are in for a treat.

The two top seeds — Margate and two-time defending champion South Jersey Surf — both went down in dramatic fashion in their respective best-of-3 semifinal openers. Hammonton, the No. 4 seed, survived a huge scare in the bottom of the seventh to hold on for a 3-2 win, while No. 3 Northfield scratched out a 2-1 win over the Surf thanks in large part to their star player, Cole Fowler.

The series continue to night with the Surf and Cardinals squaring off at Birch Grove Park in Northfield and Margate traveling to Hammonton Lake Park to take on the Hot Shots. Both games start at 7 p.m.

Evan Biddle, a 2023 graduate of Salem High School, threw five shutout innings for Northfield, allowing just four hits and three walks while striking out four, and St. Augustine Prep’s Mike Burnley picked up his sixth save of the season over the final two innings. Fowler went 3-for-3, including a first-inning solo home run and he collected all of Northfield’s hits on the night.

Hammonton built a 3-1 lead heading into the seventh thanks to a couple of RBI singles from Dan Gavlick and Mason Dorsey and some strong pitching from starter Chris Garwood, but ran into some big-time trouble in the bottom of the seventh as Margate rallied to load the bases off reliever Lucas Hampel. Margate’s Nolan Charlton drew a walk to force in a run to cut the Hurricanes’ deficit to 3-2, but reliever Peter Berenato came on and struck out two straight batters to nail down the win.

“Pete and Lucas, these guys pitch quite a bit and they are our two main guys out of the pen,” said Hammonton coach Sam Rodio. “We made a decision to go with Lucas first based on stuff more than anything, matchups more than anything. That didn’t quite work so I went to Pete and had every confidence in him. He’s closed out plenty of big games over the years.

“You don’t really want contact in that situation, other than a little pop up. But with (Margate) there’s no such thing as a little pop-up,” Rodio added. “Berenato does have strikeout stuff against anybody. And he knows Margate pretty well and has had some decent success against them over the years. We said to each other, ‘we need a strikeout here.’ That was the plan and it worked.”

Hammonton will look to close things out and advance to the championship series with a win tonight, and the Hot Shots will turn to John Kasper, who had an almost unbelievable stat line last week in the close-out win in the quarterfinals against Absecon. In a seven-inning complete game, Kasper threw just 52 pitches — 48 of which were strikes — and allowed just two hits and no runs. When asked if he has confidence in Kasper tonight, Rodio said, “I do, of course. He had a blip against Margate a few weeks ago, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. It was not a good game all the way around so I’m sure he’s looking to bounce back from that. When he’s on, he’s as good as anybody around. We feel very confident with him on the mound.”