BARNEGAT, N.J. – Jason Groome just wanted to put the last 2 1/2 weeks behind him when he pitched Saturday morning for Barnegat against Pinelands in an Ocean County Tournament first-round game.
“It felt great. I was hoping it was going to come sooner, but unfortunately it didn’t,” said Groome, after he pitched a complete-game two-hitter on 96 pitches in the Bengals’ 2-0 win. “I’m happy it came (Saturday).”
Groome, who could be the No. 1 overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft on June 9, was declared ineligible by the NJSIAA from April 14-26 because he did not have a bona fide change of address when he enrolled back at Barnegat last September after he spent his junior season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida,
Barnegat (7-8) had to forfeit the two games Groome pitched earlier this season, including a no-hitter where he struck out 19 against Central on April 11.
Groome declined to comment when asked what the period of being ineligible was like for him.
Barnegat coach Dan McCoy said Groome showed poise amidst the turmoil surrounding his ineligibility.
“He’s handled it pretty well for a 17-year-old kid,” McCoy said. “A lot of times I think people forget that even though he’s Jay Groome, the No. 1 prospect in the country, he’s still just a 17-year-old high school kid. He hasn’t pouted about it. He hasn’t said anything negative. He’s keeping a positive attitude. He’s joking around with the kids on the team.
“(Saturday) is back to where we were in the beginning of the year. There’s a different vibe when Jay’s on the mound. Obviously, the kids live off that.”
Groome struck out 13, walked three and displayed a nasty curve ball and change-up, and a fastball that had pop in all areas of the strike zone. He had a high clocking with his fastball of 94 miles per hour and his curve ball and change-up were clocked in the low 70s by the Major League scouts.
Senior catcher Brad O’Brien and senior right fielder Ryan Ross led off the third and seventh innings respectively with line drive opposite field singles to right for Pinelands’ hits. Freshman shortstop Joey Ventresca worked out walks in the fourth and sixth inning, and freshman third baseman Anthony Diaz walked in the sixth.
The Wildcats did make Groome throw 19 pitches in the fourth and 24 in the sixth when they had runners on first and second with two out before Groome got a 4-6 force out to get out of the inning.
“My command felt pretty good. I walked a few,” said Groome, who did pitch in an intrasquad scrimmage April 22. “But, overall, I thought I had a pretty good day. I’m happy with my performance.”
Groome, who has struck out 42, walked four, hit a batter and allowed three hits in the 18 innings he has pitched this season, was maybe not quite as sharp as he was in the two starts before he was declared ineligibie, but he still was dominant.
“I’ve seen him better,” McCoy said. “He was a little bit rusty. Jay’s usually pounding the strike zone, strike one, strike one, strike one. He didn’t do that much (Saturday). He still went out and competed, got his work in. We’re just going to move forward to his next start.
McCoy said Groome’s next start will depend on whether the Bengals can win their OCT quarterfinal-round game at Point Boro scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday. The start would come Saturday in a OCT semifinal, should the Bengals advance to that point. Otherwise, it will likely be Thursday when Barnegat plays at Lakewood.
About 50 Major League scouts and front office personnel watched Groome, including Phillies’ Director of Player Development Joe Jordan. Jordan said it was the first time he had seen Groome pitch in person. Jordan watched Groome warm up in the bullpen, along with the rest of the scouts, before the game and then stood behind the plate during the game.
Jordan said Groome is a player the Phillies ‘should be interested” in.
“It sounds like he’s one of the better talents in the country,” said Jordan just before the game started. “Johnny Almaraz (the Phillies director of amateur scouting) and his staff will make the decision. I feel fortunate I get to watch the kid pitch (Saturday morning).”
If the Phillies do draft and sign Groome, Jordan will be the one deciding what levels of their minor league system Groome would pitch at. The low Class A Lakewood BlueClaws of the South Atlantic League are one of the Phillies’ minor league teams.
“I just want to see the kid pitch,” Jordan said. “Obviously, I’ve seen him in a bullpen. I just want to see him pitch, see how he handles himself, like anyone that you see.”
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak and Almaraz watched Groome pitch April 5 against Point Pleasant Boro. Jordan has, of course, read all the scouting reports on Groome.
“The kid’s got a good arm. He’s got a breaking ball. I just saw a good change-up, a feel for a change-up in the ‘pen (bullpen),” Jordan said. “The physical ability is there. He’s got a plenty of good arsenal down the road. You’ve got to be able to use it.”
Groome had two strikeouts in each of the first three innings and the sixth inning. He struck out the side in the fourth and had one strikeout in the fifth and seventh innings. He also started a game-ending 1-6-3 double play and threw just eight pitches in the seventh.
Barnegat (7-8) gave Groome the only runs he would need in the third when Collin O’Conner’s infield single scored Anthony Lani and Aaron McLaughlin, who had doubled with one out, scored on the front end of a first-and-third double steal.