Pinpoint accuracy has defined Mike Bernet’s stellar career, so it was no surprise the Bishop Ahr High School stopper worked both sides of the plate to near perfection in Monday’s 11-1 mercy-rule victory over South River.
The senior right-hander, who caught four batters looking at called third strikes with fastballs over the outside black, scattered three hits and allowed an unearned run to help the Trojans (7-6) climb over .500.
“He’s been the ace of our pitching staff over the last three years and certainly during a year like this, where we struggled early, we rely on him to set the tempo out there, and he’s done that,” Bishop Ahr coach Scott Runkel said.
Now in his 30th season, Runkel, who has been around since the Greater Middlesex Conference’s inception in 1986, said he believes the league’s pitching, including Bernet, may be deeper than ever.
“Every team is just running one guy after another out there,” he said. “It’s a great year for Middlesex County.”
More than a dozen starters conference-wide boast ERAs below 1.91, with Metuchen’s Brian Eustace (0.00), Edison’s Fabian Navarro (0.41) and South Brunswick’s Sean Keenan (0.83) leading the league among hurlers with 27 or more innings pitched.
Bernet’s only losses this season were a one-run setback to Metuchen (with Eustace on the mound) and a 4-0 defeat to Middlesex, the defending GMC Tournament champion which is currently ranked No. 1 in the Home News Tribune Top 10.
With Bernet, the Trojans have upset potential for the conference tournament, which will be seeded Thursday and which commences Saturday with preliminary-round games.
Bernet, who walked just 11 batters while fanning 57 over 51 innings a year ago, improved his personal mark to 4-2 with Monday’s six-strikeout, two-walk performance.
He set the tone early, fanning two of the first three batters on called third strikes over the outside black.
Freshman outfielder Matt Leviton accounted for South River’s lone run, fouling off four two-strike offerings before hitting a two-out RBI double to left-center to score Bobby Applegate, who reached on an infield error.
Cleanup batter Hunter Llerena, who entered the contest batting just under .500 for Bishop Ahr, went 3-for-4 with a double and four RBI.
“He’s been in a zone for quite a while now,” Runkel said of Llerena. “He’s seeing the ball at the plate and he’s turning into a very selective and patient hitter, just the way we teach it. The sky is the limit for him.”
Matt Stavropoulos and Tom Weiler each went 2-for-3 for Bishop Ahr, which collected 13 hits. Each starter had at least a run scored or an RBI.
The Trojans batted around in the first inning, scoring four runs off hard-luck loser Tyler Higgins, a freshman making his varsity debut.
South River (4-14), mired in a nine-game losing streak – including an 8-7 loss to 10th-ranked Spotswood and a 12-inning setback to Colonia, both within the last week – committed five errors that led to five unearned runs.
Bernet, meanwhile, benefitted from solid play across the board, something he hopes will continue in the postseason.
“I think if we hit every game like we did today and play good defense,” Bernet said, “we could be successful.”