Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Baseball: Pope John ends skid in crosstown rivalry

SPARTA -- Jack Nelson and his Pope John teammates were very aware of the recent series history against their crosstown rivals.

Suffice it to say, the senior right-hander wasn't interested in repeating it, spinning a seven-inning gem in leading the Lions to a 2-0 win over Sparta in an NJAC American Division clash on Wednesday at Pope John XXIII High School.

Nelson (1-2) allowed just five hits and three walks to go with six strikeouts in the shutout, which helped Pope John (4-3, 2-1 division) snap a three-game skid vs. Sparta (2-3, 0-2) dating to 2013.

"We haven't beaten them since my sophomore year and they swept up [in two division meetings] last year," said Nelson, who worked out of jams in the first and second innings before breezing through the next four frames. "I wasn't going to let us lose again."

Both offenses have struggled early on as the teams combined for eight hits in this one. Pope John, which had just three hits on the day, scored both runs in the third off a fielder's choice grounder and a sacrifice fly.

Sparta ace Dillon Mendel (1-1) certainly deserved a better fate, logging 5 1/3 solid innings in which he allowed two runs on three hits with two walks and four strikeouts. The right-hander fanned 10 in an opening day win over Wallkill Valley.

"Dillon pitched outstanding. It was all we could ask for," said veteran Spartans coach Sam Slobodzian, who lifted the right-hander in the sixth with a pitch count in the mid-80s. "I'm proud of our guys. It was a well-played game on both sides. They got the key hit and we didn't, and we made some mistakes that cost us."

After Trevor Backman's leadoff walk was erased with Jay Sanford's fielder's choice grounder, Pope John designated hitter Justin Provost reached on an infield single to put runners on first and second. Zach Leach walked to load the bases and Sanford trotted home on Ethan Collins' roller to first. Provost scored on George Somers' fly ball to right to cap the scoring.

With a two-run lead, Nelson was able to work with some breathing room. He retired nine of 11 from the third inning until a two-out single in the sixth by Connor Coyle, who went 2-for-3 in the loss. Coyle was then erased on a 1-3-6-1 caught stealing.

The Spartans threatened in the seventh when catcher Mike Vocaturo reached on an error leading off the frame. With one out, Paul DeAquino singled up the middle to put the potential tying runs on first and second. But Cameron Estanislau struck out and crossed home plate in the process, and batter's interference was called when Pope John catcher Leach tried to throw down to second base.

Earlier in the sixth, batter's interference was called on Pope John to end the inning.

"I've been coaching [for 16 seasons] and I can't remember seeing one, let alone two [interference calls]," Lions coach Vin Bello said.

Sparta's struggles at the plate continued in the early going. Slobodzian's club managed just five hits and missed a golden chance in the first after Tim Gondek's leadoff single and stolen base. Nelson struck out Nick Makowitz and Coyle to strand Gondek at third. Overall, the Nos. 1-4 hitters went a combined 1-for-11.

"Definitely my fastball [was working]. I didn't have great control of my curveball," Nelson said. "Once we got two runs, we knew we were going to win. We know if we can get three, four or five runs, we can beat anyone. Pitching is always a strength of our team."

"He stuck to scouting report and settled in two through six," Bello said. "We're confident with Jack. You can't let a well-coached team hang around. Hopefully the offense will come around. I saw some good things the last few games."

Now 0-2 in the division after an 8-1 loss to front-running Mount Olive on Monday, Sparta will need to get the bats going if it is to repeat as the American champion.

"I thought we hit the ball hard against one of the best pitchers [in the area]," Slobodzian said. "The hits will come. [Pope John] made some nice plays in the infield."

Pope John moved over the .500 mark just in time with games against Randolph (Friday) and Don Bosco Prep (Saturday) on tap.

"This was a good win against a division opponent and we needed it," said Bello, whose teams are 6-3 vs. Sparta in the six-year history of the NJAC.

SPARTA (ab-r-h-rbi) -- Gondek rf 3-0-1-0, Jack Simon 2b-p 3-0-0-0, Mendel p-ss 2-0-0-0, Makowitz 1b 3-0-0-0, Coyle lf 3-0-2-0, Vocaturo c 2-0-0-0, Sean Young cr 0-0-0-0, Jack Kulik cf 3-0-0-0, DeAquino ss-3b 2-0-1-0, Estanislau 3b-2b 2-0-0-0. Totals: 24-0-5-0.

POPE JOHN (ab-r-h-rbi) -- Sanford ss 3-1-1-0, Provost dh/Nelson p 3-1-1-0, Leach c 1-0-0-0, Cyrus Ahmadi cr 0-0-0-0, Collins 1b 3-0-0-1, Somers 2b 2-0-0-1, Kyle Malejko cf 3-0-0-0, Hunter Silvernail lf 2-0-0-0, Ryan Casey lf 1-0-1-0, Connor Van Kampen 3b 3-0-0-0, Backman rf 0-0-0-0. Totals: 21-2-3-2.

Sparta (2-3, 0-2)                 000       000       0 --  0   5   2
Pope John (4-3, 2-1)          002       000       x--   2   3   1

E -- DeAquino 2; Collins. DP -- Sparta 1 (Simon-Vocaturo, 6th); Pope John 2 (Somers-Sanford-Collins, 2nd; Nelson-Leach, 7th). LOB -- Sparta 5, Pope John 6. 2B -- Coyle. SB -- Gondek, Mendel; Casey. CS -- Coyle; Leach. SF -- Somers.

Mendel, Simon (6) and Vocaturo. Nelson and Leach. W -- Nelson (1-2). L -- Mendel (1-1). SO-BB -- Mendel 4-2; Simon 1-0; Nelson 6-3. PB -- Vocaturo 2. HBP -- Leach, Backman (by Mendel).

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