By Ryan Fennell
Middletown – It took some old-fashioned small-ball from the Middletown South Eagles to squeak out a 1-0 win over cross-town and division rival Middletown North under the lights on Monday night.
The reason – outstanding pitching performances from South’s Howie Brey and North’s Mike Macchia.
It became clear early on as both pitchers were perfect through three that it would come down to which team blinked first.
Brey allowed two hits while striking out 11 with no walks and one hit batsman over seven scoreless innings.
Macchia’s line was equally impressive allowing three hits with no walks, one hit batsman, and four strikeouts over seven innings, but with one unearned run marking the difference in the game.
The only run of the game came in the bottom of the fifth when Macchia beaned South junior Mike Grossi to lead off the inning. Brey advanced pinch-runner Michael Diorio, who came in for Grossi, with a sacrifice bunt down the third base line. The next batter, Nicholas McGann grounded to third, but Chris Stark’s throw to first was in the dirt and skipped past first baseman Tim Rhatigan, which allowed Diorio to advance to third and McGann to second.
Perry Kulaga skied a 1-0 pitch to deep left for the sacrifice fly to score Diorio to give South the 1-0 lead.
Conversely, it was North that got to Brey an inning earlier, but stellar defense from the Eagles quickly erased any Lions’ threat.
In the top of the fourth leadoff batter Russ Halbach singled down the left field line and was replaced with a pinch runner, Mike Bartles, at first. After Brey’s first pitch strike to Austin Borrero, McGann, behind the plate for South, fired down to first to catch Bartles straying too far off the bag for the pickoff and the first out of the inning. Borrero later struck out looking before Stark laced a single to right-center to keep the pressure on Brey. North Senior Tim Rhatigan worked the count full before driving one to right center, but Eagles’ centerfielder Dan Sweeney was on his horse and made a long run before laying out for the catch to end the inning.
The singles to Halbach and Stark would be the only hits Brey allowed in the game.
“Our defense definitely helped us today,” Brey said. “Dan Sweeney in centerfield made a great play. It was a game-saver right there. And McGann picked the kid off at first and that was a big play there, too.
“Macchia pitched a great game,” Brey added. “He threw any pitch he wanted to at any time. He threw his changeup for strikes and we had trouble hitting it today.”
“It was a great pitching matchup. Both guys were perfect through three,” Middletown South head coach Ryan Spillane said. “I knew that it was going to be tough to scratch out a run. We were fortunate enough to make something happen in the fifth. We did a great job situational hitting with the bunt and the sacrifice fly and that was the difference.”
Despite Middletown North’s 4-10 record, head coach Jay Dooley believes his team’s record doesn’t reflect the level of play his guys have put forth this season.
“They’ve grown a lot from what I’ve seen,” Dooley said. “From where we were at the beginning of the season starting 0-5, we were on a 4-4 stint since then. We’ve still got a long way to go. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played and we’re going to try to get some Monmouth County Tournament wins.”
“Michael [Macchia]’s been pitching well all year. I couldn’t be more proud of him,” said Dooley. “We just didn’t get any run support today.
“We faced a good D-1 recruit today in Howie Brey,” he added, “but I thought my kids stayed fighting till the end and we just didn’t come out on the right side.”
Middletown South (10-3, 8-2) will face off against another A North division opponent in Manalapan (9-5, 6-2) on Wednesday. Manalapan won the first matchup between the two division leaders 11-0 back on April 9.
“Our destiny is in our own hands as far as A North now,” Spillane said. “We win Wednesday and we give ourselves a real good shot at winning the division, which is our number one goal.”
“We got killed by Manalapan the last time we played them, so we’re looking for some revenge,” Brey said. “We have to come out and win a game because we haven’t won a division [title] since 1999.
“We have to be ready to go,” he added. “We have to be fired up and we have to win the game to be in the driver’s seat to win the division.”
[Due to consecutive days of inclement weather, the game between Middletown South and Manalapan has been postponed until Tuesday, May 8 at 4 pm at Middletown High School South.]