As soon as the opponent’s bat greeted the ill-advised changeup, Kyle Moroney knew the ball, his shutout, his scoreless innings streak and – most importantly to the senior right-hander – his team’s lead were gone.
After cleanup hitter Anthony Tagliaferro’s solo blast over the left-centerfield fence enabled Monroe to forge a short-lived 1-1 tie in the bottom of the fourth, Moroney’s South Plainfield High School baseball teammates responded with two runs in the ensuing frame.
Moroney made the second lead stand, retiring the game’s final 11 batters while propelling the Tigers to Tuesday’s 4-1 victory as the Falcons endured their first Greater Middlesex Conference White Division loss.
Monroe, which entered the game with a phenomenal 0.60 team ERA, having allowed just 20 hits and six earned runs, fell to 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the division. South Plainfield (8-3, 4-3) and Woodbridge trail the Falcons by one game in the wins column.
Despite returning just six of its innings pitched and with six starters from the team that reached last year’s GMC Tournament final currently playing in college, Monroe boasts the league’s fourth best overall record. Monroe’s pitching staff has been aided by solid defense as the middle infield has turned 11 double plays including one against the Tigers. Outfielders Chris Henrandez (.500) and Danny Gregor (.428) entered Tuesday’s game as the leading hitters on a solid lineup, which Moroney (4-0, 0.38 ERA) quelled.
“We’ve had some darn good pitchers come through here and that’s the best performance I’ve ever seen,” veteran South Plainfield head coach Anthony Guida said of Moroney’s two-hit, 11 strikeout effort.
South Plainfield took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth on Rob Eggert’s perfectly executed safety squeeze down the first-base line that scored senior centerfielder Aidan McDermott with runners on the corners. McDermott, who will attend St. John’s University on a partial baseball scholarship, singled, stole second and advanced to third on a catcher’s throwing error.
The Tigers took a 3-1 lead in the fifth on McDermott’s RBI single off losing pitcher Mario Danza’s glove and cleanup batter Justin Marks’ run-scoring single to center.
“I needed a boost right there and that’s exactly what they did,” Moroney said. “They gave me a lot of confidence going into the next inning. That’s huge insurance right there.”
Eggert’s perfectly executed hit-and-run single with two away through the left side of the infield, which shortstop Anthony Parente vacated to cover second base, gave South Plainfield a 4-1 lead in the top of the seventh.
Moroney’s fastball, according to the radar gun of a college scout positioned behind the backstop, topped out at 88 mph and averaged 85 throughout the game. His curveball and circle change were sharp enough to keep Monroe hitters off-balance.
“I told the guys I was impressed with his knowledge of pitching,” Monroe head coach Pat Geroni said of a conversation with his players after scouting Moroney against Colonia earlier this season. “He definitely added about three or four miles today from that start. He just had a little extra than what I saw. He threw absolutely great.”
Moroney allowed just six balls to leave the infield – including Kyle Daly’s opposite-field double in the third – but his ability to not let the one that left the ballpark trouble him was the key to his success.
“After a big hit like that you are going to be a little bit startled, but what I always like to do, as soon as the ball is hit, if I think it’s gone, I just turn around,” Moroney said. “I never watch it because that’s going to sit in your head watching that thing land. The key is to be mad about it for a minute. Shake it off. Go back out there and do what you’ve got to do.”
Moroney’s visceral reaction – including a fist pump and a shout – after blowing a 2-2 fastball at the numbers past Tagliaferro in the seventh suggested he didn’t completely forget about the homer. His team’s two-run rally simply made it easier to deal with.
“He wanted that strikeout in the last inning,” Guida said. “For him to yell out like that, he was pretty upset. I think he knew that that was his first earned run (after 22 consecutive scoreless innings).”
Freshman left-hander Eric Heatter will start the second game of the home-and-home series against South Plainfield today. Over 15 and a third innings, the Monroe rookie has fanned 18, allowed six hits, four walks and one run.