Thursday, April 3, 2014

Baseball: Spartans grind out first win over Vikings

SPARTA -- Early in the season as it may be, Sparta's baseball team knew the importance of getting that first victory under its collective belts.

Pegged by most as conference and sectional title favorites, the Spartans rebounded from a tough Opening Day loss with a gritty 3-2 victory over upset-minded Vernon on Thursday in a Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference American Division clash at Cassels Field.

Sparta (1-1, 1-1 division), which won 17 games in finishing second in the division and reaching the North 1, Group 3 semifinals a year ago, opened the 2014 season two days earlier with a 3-2 loss to Mount Olive. Coach Sam Slobodizan's club has struggled a bit offensively out of the gate, managing just four hits in the win. The Vikings (0-2, 0-2), who opened with a 12-3 loss to Morris Knolls, outhit the Spartans, but hurt their own cause by issuing nine walks and running themselves out of two potential big innings.

In fact, the go-ahead run crossed when Sparta designated hitter Kevin Foulds was plunked in the back of the helmet with the bases loaded in the fourth inning.

"We have nine guys that played in the basketball program [that went to the North 1, Group 3 final in early March] and they're still trying to get into baseball shape -- and on top of not getting on our field much [in the preseason," said Slobodzian, whose Spartans have beaten the Vikings in six straight meetings since a 3-2 loss in nine innings at home on April 8, 2011. In fact, three of the last four contests at Cassels Field since 2011 have been 3-2 decisions, the lone exception being a 6-3 Sparta win in 2013.

"It's super early. We left about 13 guys on-base [against Mount Olive] and [eight] today. It's a different mindset with guys in scoring position. We put the bat on the ball in spots today. The tempo of the game was slow and out of whack. Credit Harboy for keeping us off-balance [for five innings]."

Sparta leadoff man Thomas Ruddy saw his school-record 32-game hitting streak dating to 2012 end with an 0-for-2 day. The Yale-bound center fielder, who hit safely in all 27 games a year ago, walked twice, scored and stole a base on Thursday to raise his career total to 60, also a school record. He flew out right leading off the first inning and popped out to third in his final at-bat in the sixth.

"It was a heckuva streak," Slobodzian said. "If he wants to start another one [Saturday at Morris Hills], that's fine with me."

Vernon starter Mike Harboy, who walked nine batters in the loss, got into some early trouble by issuing three straight free passes to load the bases after retiring Ruddy on a fly ball to right leading off the bottom of the first. Matt Chemis drove in the game's first run on a fielder's choice to second.

Sparta right-hander Dillon Mendel, the team's No. 2 pitcher, worked out of a jam in the second as his defense betrayed him by committing three errors that led directly to a pair of runs. After a leadoff single by cleanup hitter Dave Baxter, Mendel fanned Anthony Germinario. The next batter, designated hitter Matt Emerson, hit into a fielder's choice to short, but the flip from T.J. Estanislau sailed over second baseman Austin Unglaub's glove, allowing Baxter to race all the way to third base.

With runners on first and third, Cody Bartsch was retired for the second out on a comebacker to the mound. Christian Quaranta's grounder to short should have ended the inning, but Estanislau's throw to first was wide and both runners scored to give Vernon a 2-1 lead. Another fielding error off the bat of No. 9 hitter Joe Roccasanta kept the inning going before Mendel induced an inning-ending ground ball to third from Harboy with runners on first and second.

"A lot of pitchers go for strikeouts, but I pitch to get outs," said Mendel, who was 4-3 with a 2.19 ERA last year. "When your [defense] makes errors, it's frustrating, but we know that's not usual. You just have to battle and pitch through it."

Mendel, who didn't necessarily have his best stuff, said his changeup was working well, as he allowed just five hits and one walk to go with three strikeouts. Both runs he allowed were unearned.

"He made the money pitches when he had to get out of innings," Slobodzian said. "It was good to see him get through that."

Sparta knotted the game at 2 on Chemis' sacrifice fly to center following back-to-back singles by Unglaub and Foulds to start the third. But the Spartans missed a golden chance for a bigger inning as Harboy retired Nick Makowitz and Mendel on ground balls to end what was a first-and-second with no outs threat.

After a 1-2-3 top half of the fourth, Sparta took the lead for good after Harboy loaded the bases with two walks and a single to Unglaub, who finished 2-for-2 with a walk and a run scored. An offspeed pitch clipped the back of Foulds' helmet to force in the go-ahead run. Earlier, Vernon helped itself with a 6-4-3 double play before the Spartans started their rally.

Each team turned a pair of double plays as Sparta took advantage of some poor baserunning decisions by Vernon in the fifth and sixth innings. With one out, Harboy singled and gave way to courtesy runner Josh Rodriguez. Kevin Moran then grounded out to third, but the inning ended with Rodriguez getting hung between second and third on the play.

In the sixth, Chris Pontus hit a leadoff single before Baxter's crushing drive to left was caught for the first out. Germinario followed with another single to give the Vikings runners at first and second. Emerson followed with a single to center, but Ruddy's throw hit cutoff man Makowitz, who fired to Estanislau to get Germinario at second. For some reason, Pontus broke for home on the play and was gunned down for the final out.

Senior Drew Garger came on and pitched a perfect seventh inning for the save.

"We've been harping on getting the guys to play defense," said Slobodzian, whose team was able to overcome three errors. "We've got a ways to go."

VERNON (ab-r-h-rbi) -- Harboy p 3-0-1-0/Rodriguez cr 0-0-0-0, Moran 3b-p 3-0-0-0, Pontus cf 3-0-1-0, Baxter 1b 2-1-1-0, Germinario 2b 3-0-1-0, Emerson dh-3b/Connor Fitzsimmons c 3-1-1-0, Bartsch lf 3-0-0-0, Quaranta ss 3-0-0-1, Roccasanta rf 3-0-0-0. Totals: 26-2-5-1.

SPARTA (ab-r-h-rbi) -- Ruddy cf 2-1-0-0, Estanislau ss 2-1-0-0, Unglaub 2b 2-1-2-0, Foulds dh/Matt Seville 3b/Anthony Longo pr 1-0-1-1, Chemis lf 2-0-0-2, Makowitz 1b 3-0-0-0, Mendel p 3-0-1-0, Garger p 0-0-0-0, Michael Meisel c/Alec Bowie cr/Jake Davis ph 1-0-0-0/0-0-0-0, Tim Gondek rf 2-0-0-0. Totals: 18-3-4-3.

Vernon (0-2, 0-2)               020       000       0 --  2   5   0
Sparta (1-1, 1-1)                101       100       x--   3   4   3

E -- Estanislau 2, Seville. DP -- Vernon 2 (Baxter, unassisted, 2nd), (Quaranta-Germanario-Baxter, 4th); Sparta 2 (Makowitz-Seville-Makowitz, 5th, Estanislau-Meisel, 6th). LOB -- Vernon 4, Sparta 8. SB -- Gondek, Ruddy. CS -- Davis. SF -- Chemis.

Harboy, Moran (6) and Fitzsimmons. Mendel, Garger (7) and Meisel. W -- Mendel (1-0). L -- Harboy (0-1). S -- Garger (1). SO-BB -- Harboy 0-9; Moran 1-0; Mendel 3-1, Garger 0-0. WP -- Harboy. HBP -- Foulds (by Harboy).

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