The cozy-looking sign with a picture of a baseball resting comfortably inside a bird’s nest along the right-centerfield fence reads “Welcome to The Nest,” a reference to the Middlesex High School baseball team’s friendly confines.
Throughout his brilliant career, senior Brennan Price, the state’s premier power hitter and leading run producer, has been depositing baseballs behind that sign, whose location represents his power alley.
Price celebrated his final home game with yet another round-tripper – his ninth of the season – to put the finishing touches on Middlesex’s 4-0 victory over Shore Regional in Friday’s NJSIAA Central Group I final.
The Blue Jays, who won their first sectional title since 2007, the same year they last won a state crown, advanced to Tuesday’s Group I semifinals (4 p.m. Tuesday at Rutgers University) against Pitman, the South Group I champion.
With two more victories, Middlesex (24-4) will break the single-season school record for wins.
Senior lefthander Tommy Marcinczyk, who will attend Rutgers University on a partial baseball scholarship, improved his personal mark to 10-0 and lowered his ERA below 0.80 with a three-hit masterpiece.
He snapped the eight-game winning streak of Shore Regional (11-15), which rebounded from a 1-10 start to reach its first sectional final since 2009.
“We were trying to keep the kids together, trying to keep them confident because we knew we had the talent,” Shore Regional head coach Patrick O’Neill said of the inauspicious start. “It’s a testament to their character. They really stayed with it and worked hard in practice.”
The battle-tested Blue Devils finished last in the highly competitive Shore Conference Class A Central Division, which features reigning Central Group II champion Monmouth, state power Red Bank Catholic and St. John Vianney.
“We’ve played a lot of very good teams, big-time schools in our division,” O’Neill said. “So playing (Middlesex) was like playing one of the teams in our division. In order to beat them, you have to play your best, and I don’t think we played our best today.”
Losing pitcher Mike Blaney, victorious in each of his last four outings, allowed 10 hits, six of which came on two-strike counts. Shore Regional’s defense helped limit the damage, turning two double plays. The Blue Jays fanned just once and most of their outs were hard hit. They stranded seven runners and couldn’t score to put the contest out of reach after loading the bases in the fourth.
“They can hit the fastball and they hit the curveball, too,” Blaney (5-4) said. “You’ve just got to keep the ball low. It just didn’t work out.”
Marcinczyk struck out eight and worked out of a second and third jam with one away in the fifth – Shore Regional’s only real threat – by fanning the No. 8 and No. 9 batters on seven pitches to preserve a 3-0 lead.
Price, whose two-out RBI single in the third gave the Blue Jays that three-run cushion, responded in the home fifth with a solo blast over the “Welcome to The Nest” sign that generated his state-leading 60th RBI of the season.
“I told (Marcinczyk) before the game, ‘You do your job and I’ll help you out as much as I can,’ ” said Price, a 6-foot-8 first baseman who was used Friday as a designated hitter. “I wasn’t playing the field so I knew I had to take advantage of what I could do and I gave him a little bit more of a cushion.”
Middlesex provided Marcinczyk with all the runs he needed, scoring twice in the second inning. Walter Byleckie crossed when the outfielder, on Kris Fellin’s single to center, overthrew the cutoff man. Kyle Dotey plated Jeff Reinecke with a sacrifice fly.
A sectional title had previously eluded a senior-laden Middlesex squad, which features 11 upperclassmen.
The Blue Jays reached the title game in 2011, falling to eventual state champion Governor Livingston. As the top seed, they were upset in the opening round last spring by 16th-seeded Point Pleasant Boro.
The sting of that 2012 loss was erased with a title in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament, from which the Blue Jays made an early exit this year, losing in the quarterfinals to eventual GMCT runner-up Monroe.
“This is a great feeling,” Marcinczyk said. “We had one thing left to focus on and right now we are focused on this (state title). Our intensity level is sky high.”
With his parting shot over that sign in right-center, Price made sure the senior class, playing its final home game, left something behind.
“Save it,” Price said of his home run ball with a smile, “for The Nest.”