By Brian Deakyne
MIDDLETOWN – For the last three years, Middletown South’s Ryan Spillane has thrown around the words “championships” and “program” often.
So with his Eagles on the ropes – and at the verge of the end of a disappointing season – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his players came through.
Middletown South, seeded sixth in the Central Jersey, Group III sectional tournament, erased a 1-0 deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning against 11-seeded Freehold Borough in the tournament’s first round on Monday, May 20. The Eagles, who had not won the Monmouth County Tournament or Shore Conference Tournament this season, won the game, 2-1, on a walk-off sacrifice fly off the bat of junior designated hitter Christian Penk in the bottom of the eighth inning.
“These guys have a ‘been here, done that’ kind of mentality as far as keeping their composure late in games, especially close games and this is the time of the year to do it,” Spillane said. “Hopefully, it continues. This is a real nice win, that’s a quality team, that’s a quality pitcher that we just beat. Again, we’ve got to keep it in perspective right now. This is round one of the state [playoffs] and that’s certainly not our goal to get to round two.”
Senior catcher Nick McGann drove in senior courtesy runner Michael Diorio with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning on a double to left-center field to tie the game at one. The Eagles loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth inning on an infield single by junior center fielder Andrew Wisialko, an infield error and a walk by junior shortstop Kyle Brey.
In the next at-bat, Penk lifted a deep fly ball to center field to bring home Wisialko as the winning run.
“There’s always pressure when you get up there, but I talked to coach [Spillane] at third base and he kind of took it off right there,” Penk said.
Freehold Borough scored its lone run in top of the fourth inning when senior pitcher Perry Kulaga was called for a balk with Jason Lundy on third base. The Colonials’ dugout had been calling for a balk in the previous at-bat, and Kulaga was charged with it this time around for taking an illegal step off the rubber.
“He was a great today. He was able to keep his composure and when something went against him, he didn’t let it bother him,” Spillane said. “Being 1-0 the whole game, he could have easily imploded and he didn’t. He kept it a one-run game, he pitched great, and he threw strikes. I don’t think he walked anybody [until the eighth inning] and that’s the key, too. I’m proud of his effort and it was probably his best outing of the year.”
Kulaga allowed one run on five hits over eight innings. He struck out seven batters and walked two more in the opening round victory.
Middletown South had runners reach scoring position in four of the first six innings before breaking through in the bottom of the seventh – two outs away from the season being over.
“It feels good,” Penk said. “No one wants to get knocked out first round, so it’s definitely cool. We started picking up momentum toward the end and that’s what really carried us there.”
“Mental toughness pulled us through today and it was great to see that, especially after the last couple of games where it was lacking,” Spillane said. “I told the kids that this is the time of year where we have to step up; we’ve got to raise our level of play. I’m definitely proud of our team as a whole; I thought it was a good effort.”