By Brian Deakyne
MIDDLETOWN — Playing in their most important regular season game since 1999, it was only fitting that Middletown South was represented by one of its best pitchers over the past decade.
Fitting would be another word to describe Howie Brey’s performance on the mound.
The senior southpaw hurled a complete game three hitter, allowing just one run and striking out 12 against Manalapan — last year’s A-North division champs, and a team that beat Brey earlier in the year — helping the Eagles earn their first divisional crown in 13 seasons.
The Eagles dropped Manalapan, 4-1, Tuesday afternoon, earning the out-right A-North division title.
“This is a gigantic win for the program. Showing that this wasn’t just a one-year thing. We’re out to win championships every year,” Middletown South head coach Ryan Spillane said. “We certainly knew coming in that we had the talent. This is one of the toughest divisions in the state. I’m just proud of our guys today.”
Brey retired the first 14 batters that he faced, taking a no-hit bid into the fifth inning. He struck out five of the first nine batters that he saw.
“My changeup has been working real well for me for the last two weeks. I’m real confident in throwing it and it’s the best I’ve ever thrown it for,” Brey said.
Senior Brian Healy belted a leadoff home run down the left field line to open the game, giving Middletown South a lead they would never relinquish.
South added a run in the third inning when senior Dan Sweeney’s hit up the middle squeaked through the legs of Manalapan second basemen Brian Lamboy, driving in junior Perry Kulaga from third base.
Kulaga led off the bottom of the third inning with a single to center, and was later sacrificed to second base on a bunt from Healy. Kulaga advanced to third on Kyle Brey’s ground out to shortstop.
South posted another run in the bottom of the fourth inning, when senior Erik Obsteins brought home courtesy runner Michael Diorio from second base with a double in the left-center field gap. Diorio who was a runner for Brey, stole second base before being driven in by Obsteins.
Healy scored in the bottom of the fifth inning, after an errant pickoff attempt at second base sailed into center field, and he was able to score. Healy led off the inning with a walk, and was sacrificed to second base by Kyle Brey.
Healy finished 1-1 with an RBI and two runs scored.
Brey ran into trouble in the top of the seventh inning, surrendering two of his three hits and his only walk, but he worked out of trouble, allowing just one run and struck out two batters in the inning.
“Last time, [Manalapan] beat me up pretty good,” Brey said. “I feel like I had to come back and give it to them.”
“He was on today, and he is starting to get hot,” Spillane said of Brey. “At this point in the season, we have a chance to do some real good things down the stretch.”
Brey, a four-year varsity starter for the Eagles, has pitched in important regular season games, although most pale in comparison to his win over the Braves this week.
“He’s been my guy for four years,” Spillane said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the state as far as I’m concerned. There’s no one I would rather have on the mound.”
“I felt like this was my game, I had to do it, and I pitched real well,” Brey said.
Brey had a strong day at the plate as well, going 2-3.
The win is South’s ninth straight as they look to defend their Monmouth County Tournament crown and Central Jersey Group III championship later this month.
“It’s not just today, we’re starting to play real well. We’re executing the fundamentals, not making mental mistakes and playing good defense,” Spillane said. “We’re getting good pitching, if we do those things, we can beat anybody.”