Piscataway's Seneca senior right-hander Kevin Comer entered the NJSIAA Group III semifinal against Middletown South's Eagles with better credentials than any pitcher in New Jersey. He had just been selected No. 57 overall by the Toronto Blue Jays a day earlier in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Then he went out on Tuesday and showed why.
"He got drafted as high as he did for a reason,'' Middletown South head coach Ryan Spillane said. "He just dominated us.''
Comer, a Vanderbilt recruit, threw a four-hit shutout, striking out seven and walking one on 85 pitches, to send the Golden Eagles to a 7-0 win on the artificial turf at Rutgers University that ended Middletown South's underdog run on the heels of its first Central Jersey Group III title since 1999.
Seneca (15-7) moves on to face North Jersey champion Paramus in the Group III final on Saturday at one of the three Toms River high schools.
Middletown South (19-9) enjoyed its best season in 12 years, and it took one of the top high school pitchers in the Northeast region to bring it to a halt. Comer's four-seam fastball has been clocked as high as 95 mph this season and he also throws a two-seamer that sits in the 90-91 mph range. He only allowed four harmless singles in the win.
"We cranked the cage up to 100 mph yesterday in practice and nobody was really hitting it, so I didn't really know what was going to happen,'' said senior shortstop Mike Gannon. "He seems like he plays head games. He'll not really blow it by you, and then he'll bring it out of nowhere. He also throws a spike curve that is hard to pick up. He's really good.''
"I was trying to focus on the game, but there was also a lot of stuff on my mind,'' Comer said about being drafted. "Luckily by the time the game came around I was able to focus in, and it worked out real well.''
The loss concluded a banner season in which the Eagles won the Monmouth County Tournament title and a sectional championship for the first time since 1999. They won the MCT as the No. 10 seed and the CJ III title as the No. 9 seed.
"I think we were definitely underrated and overlooked coming into the season,'' Gannon said. "We have a team that doesn't look like a whole lot of talent on paper, but we have more heart than teams we've had in the past. It took someone real good to beat us, so that says something.''
"I told these guys they should be proud of their efforts this year,'' Spillane said. "We accomplished some major goals that we had set out since I took over here. These seniors turned this program around. We had a great run at the end, and it's just a shame we came up short.''
Two Eagles pitchers who have carried them for much of the season ran out of gas against a Seneca lineup that was coming off a 24-run showing in the South Jersey Group III final. The Golden Eagles got to junior lefty Howie Brey (6-4) and senior righty Will Siegfried for a combined seven runs, four of them earned, in six innings for more than enough run support for Comer.
Gannon actually led off the bottom of the first inning with a sharp single to centerfield and then Brey hit a rocket that was right at centerfielder Robert Antoniewicz one batter later, but Comer (5-0) was able to settle into a groove after that.
"My curveball was working pretty well,'' Comer said. "I left a couple up, but most of them were down in the zone and they were swinging over them.''
The Golden Eagles picked up the only run they would need in the third inning when shortstop Kyle Williams doubled to right field off Brey, went to third on a fielder's choice and scored on a sacrifice fly by catcher Mark Steen for a 1-0 advantage.
"Even when I let up that first (run), I was like, 'Oh man, this kid (Comer) is going to kill us,''' Brey said.
Seneca pushed across three more in the fourth inning highlighted by a two-run, two-out double by second baseman Rich Powelson for a 4-0 lead. After a leadoff double by first baseman Gabe Santone in the fifth inning, Brey was pulled in favor of Siegfried, the team's ace, but Seneca ended up scoring three more runs. Kory Smith was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, Williams beat out a potential double-play ball for an RBI, and Powelson smoked his second double of the game for a commanding 7-0 lead.
Considering Comer entered the game with a 1.67 ERA and only 14 hits allowed all season in 29 1/3 innings, a seven-run lead was essentially insurmountable for Middletown South while it also allowed Comer to continue to attack.
"Giving any type of run support to that kid, what are you going to do?'' Spillane said. "I was hoping for a 2-1 or 1-0 game.''
"I felt a lot more comfortable, and I was just able to come out with confidence,'' Comer said.
Comer used his defense, inducing inning-ending double plays in the fourth and fifth innings and then starting a 1-6-3 double play in the sixth inning to help cruise to the victory.
As for Middletown South, the Eagles enjoyed a resurgent season and feature a solid core of juniors who will return next season to continue the momentum.
"It was a very memorable year,'' Brey said. "We're happy about our season, and next year we'll be back here.''
Seneca 7, Middletown South 0
Seneca (15-7) 0 0 1 3 3 0 0 - 7 10 1
Midd. South (19-9) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 - 0 4 1
Doubles: (S) Powelson 2, Williams, Santone. WP: Comer (5-0); LP: Brey (6-4).