After cruising into the sixth inning with a one-hit shutout, senior right-hander Danny Marsh pitched himself into trouble, walking the bases loaded with two away while trying to preserve the Monroe High School baseball team’s one-run lead.
Marsh walked two batters on full-count offerings before issuing a free pass on four consecutive pitches, bringing up South Brunswick catcher Ken Drost, an excellent fastball hitter with power who entered Saturday’s Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament semifinal batting over .300.
Drost worked the count to 3-1 before taking a belt-high fastball for a called second strike.
With a trip to the conference tournament final on the line, Drost, like everybody else in attendance at East Brunswick Tech’s Tiger Field, was expecting another fastball.
Marsh, however, fooled everyone, snapping off a sharp-breaking curveball, which Drost swung through, ending South Brunswick’s last real threat in a 1-0 loss.
The ninth-seeded Falcons, who scored the game’s lone run on a swinging third strike in the dirt on what would have been the third out of the fourth inning, advanced to Saturday’s GMCT final against seventh-seeded J.F. Kennedy.
“I think any hitter is expecting fastball in that spot,” South Brunswick coach Tim Sweeney said of Marsh’s curveball. “It’s a 1-0 game, the bases are loaded and there’s all that pressure. I think it takes a lot of guts to call that pitch and it takes more guts to throw it.”
In a battle of future college hurlers, Marsh (Wagner) barely outdueled previously unbeaten South Brunswick ace Sean Keenan (Marist), who was equally brilliant, scattering four hits and striking out 11, including six in a row.
Keenan (8-1, 0.88 ERA) struck out the side on three occasions, with the third time failing to be a charm.
Cleanup hitter Jeff Htam legged out an infield single with one away in the fourth. He stole second and took third on a passed ball. After Keenan fanned No. 5 batter Anthony Parente for the second out, he whiffed pinch hitter Willie Levier swinging at an 0-2 curveball in the dirt. Drost, who had no shot at tagging out the speedy Htam, who scored easily, was unable to throw Levier out at first base, missing him by a step.
“It’s tough when you lose (that way),” Sweeney said. “I don’t want to say they didn’t earn it because they played a very good game, they pitched a good game, defensively they played great; it’s just that it scored on what should have been the third out of the inning is a little tough to swallow. Our guys did a great job. Sean battled all day. He pitched a great game. Their guy did, too. I think they just played a little bit better than we did today. That’s really what it comes down to.”
Left fielder Nick Cirlincione robbed Drost of a second-inning base hit and center fielder Richie Poland made a spectacular catch that prevented a run from scoring in the ensuing frame.
The Vikings stranded seven runners – four in scoring position – and left the tying run on first to end the game.
Marsh, who finished with a two-hitter, said he didn’t flinch when Monroe head coach Pat Geroni flashed the sign from the dugout for that game-defining 3-2 curveball.
“He called it and I said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” said Marsh, who is among the league’s most unflappable players. “I lost (command) for a little bit that inning. They were trying to get loud and get me rattled, but I kept my composure. I knew I had to trust my stuff and if I trusted my stuff I was going to get the job done.”
Geroni said the scouting report on Drost indicated he was a dangerous hitter with the fastball middle-away, noting he almost made the Falcons pay earlier in the game were it not for Cirlincione tracking down a line drive.
“With Keenan on the mound I didn’t know how many more runs we were going to push over,” Geroni said. “In that situation, you’ve got to trust your pitcher. It’s do or die, and I have so much faith in Danny.
“He has so much character, he’s such a bulldog. I was really confident he was going to make that pitch.”