Before this baseball season began, Middletown High School South's head coach, Ryan Spillane, pointed at the lonely championship banner in the gym that listed only one year on it and asked his players a simple question.
“I asked them how old they were in 1999, which was the last year that this school has won anything in baseball, and they were all saying they were four, five, six years old,’’ Spillane said. “That put things in perspective for those guys. It showed them how long it has been and how badly we wanted to get back to that level.’’
On Thursday night at FirstEnergy Park, Lakewood, the underdog Eagles returned to those lofty championship heights for the first time in 12 years by cooling off the hottest team in New Jersey.
Middletown South, the No. 10 seed, won its first Monmouth County Tournament title since that 1999 season by ending fifth-seeded Red Bank Catholic’s school-record 24-game winning streak with a stunning, 8-5 victory. The Eagles (18-8) scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to snap a 5-5 tie and send the Caseys (25-3) to their first loss since early April.
Leading the way was senior catcher Rob Marcickiewicz, who went 4-for-4 with a double and three RBIs to earn the plaque as the top hitter in the tournament. Senior relief pitcher Rob Barnek also earned Most Valuable Player honors by allowing one unearned run in 2 1/3 innings out of the bullpen behind starter Mike Bergin to lock down the win.
It marked Middletown South’s fifth straight win and its fourth that came in its final at-bat, including an 11-inning win over Jackson Liberty in the state playoffs on Tuesday.
"It just says something about the character of this team,'' Spillane said. "We're down, but never out.''
“I thought we had this game the whole time,'' Marcickiewicz said. "We've played four or five extra-inning games recently, so we're used to pressure situations. It was actually nice to have more than a one-run lead at the end this time.''
Middletown South will try to make it two championships in two days as it will travel to second-seeded Brick for the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final at 1 p.m. on Friday with ace Will Siegfried on the mound in search of its first sectional title since that banner 1999 season. The Eagles also finished the job in the MCT after losing to Manalapan in the semifinals because of a stunning, seven-run rally in the final inning by the Braves.
"We set out for this goal last year, and we came up short,'' Marcickiewicz said. "This year, we wanted to finish it and we did.''
In the win over RBC, which was seeking its first MCT title, shortstop Mike Gannon added two hits and a run scored, first baseman Howie Brey was 2-for-3 with two runs scored, second baseman Sean Kennedy was 2-for-3 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored, rightfielder Chris Mangarelli added a hit, two walks and a run scored, and centerfielder Dan Sweeney had an RBI single in the sixth and two runs scored in the game.
After an RBI single by RBC senior first baseman Dylan Chayes tied the game at five in the top of the sixth inning, the Eagles mounted the winning rally in the bottom of the inning off Caseys reliever Sam McGovern. Kennedy started it with a single off McGovern, who had struck out the first three hitters he faced in the fifth inning.
Gannon followed with another single, and then a wild throw to first by McGovern on a sacrifice bunt by Brey allowed Kennedy to score for a 6-5 lead and sent Gannon to third. RBI singles by Sweeney and Marcickiewicz then gave the Eagles a three-run cushion.
"We just put the ball in play and let things happen,'' Marcickiewicz said. "They made a key error, and we took the momentum.''
That put Barnek in place to seal an improbable win, and the 6-foot-6 senior right-hander tossed a 1-2-3 seventh inning to touch off the celebratory pile-on. Barnek became one of the more unlikely MCT MVP selections in tournament history considering he had only thrown 7 2/3 innings the entire season because of arm trouble before he entered the game on Thursday night at the home of the Lakewood BlueClaws, a Philadelphia Phillies’ minor-league affiliate.
"Our back-up pitchers, Bergin and I, we had to step up today,'' Barnek said. "I was nervous, but after the first pitch it all went away and I just kept pounding.''
The lead had switched hands multiple times until the sixth inning, but Middletown South was aggressive from the outset. The Eagles got the leadoff man on in all six innings and recovered from an early two-run hole to fight the whole way.
RBC took a 2-0 lead in the top of the third when senior catcher Vinny Tranchina launched a two-run homer over the left field fence, but the Eagles came back with a run off RBC starter Ryan Slate in the bottom of the inning to halve the lead.
Leftfielder Stefan Poggioli led off with a single, Kennedy walked, Gannon bunted the runners over, and then Brey hit an RBI infield single to cut it to 2-1. RBC made it 3-1 in the fourth inning when Rescigno hit a leadoff double and scored on a one-out single by outfielder Trevor Brain. The Eagles tied the game in the bottom of the fourth inning on an RBI sacrifice fly by third baseman Mike Grossi and an RBI single by Kennedy with two outs.
RBC jumped ahead, 4-3, in the top of the fifth inning on a two-out RBI double to the left field wall by senior designated hitter C.J. Lucia that scored junior Andrew LaMura and prompted Spillane to insert Barnek for Bergin. The Eagles responded by taking a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the inning when they loaded the bases with no outs against Slate before Marcickiewicz smacked a two-run double to left field.
"The first at-bat I saw three fastballs, and when I hit the double it was another fastball,'' he said. "Another time (Slate) fooled me on a splitter but I stayed back and slapped it.''
Marcickiewicz's double put a pair of runners in scoring position with no outs, but McGovern came on in relief and stifled out a potential big inning with three straight strikeouts. The Caseys took that momentum to tie the game in the sixth when rightfielder Nick Liggett, who was 2-for-3 in the game, hit a leadoff single, went to second on a throwing error and then scored on Chayes' RBI single to right off Barnek.
That set the stage for Middletown South's latest comeback and illustrated why games aren’t just played on paper. RBC may have entered with the state’s longest winning streak and a win over Middletown South from the regular season, but the Eagles showed why they have become giant-killers during this postseason.