Baseball – Pontari Pitches Middletown South to First Sectional Title in a Decade
MIDDLETOWN - Facing a pitcher that had already shutout his team's capable offense during the regular season, Middletown South senior pitcher Matt Pontari knew a good game on the mound wouldn't be enough for his team to win the Central Jersey Group IV championship.
Pontari and Middletown South had been good all year. On Friday, he knew he had to be great and he has seen what great looks like up close. Less than two weeks after losing to Shane Panzini and Red Bank Catholic in the Shore Conference Tournament final and a little more than a month after losing to Friday's opponent, Marlboro senior ace Mark Capell, Pontari was the star on the mound and it won his team a championship.
Middletown South's senior right-hander pitched a six-hit shutout Friday to outduel Capell and deliver the Eagles a 2-0 win over Marlboro to give the program its first sectional championship since 2011.
Pontari has taken the ball in a number of important games this season. In addition to losing to Panzini and Capell in shutout losses by the Eagles, Pontari also won games against Central Jersey Group III champion Colts Neck in the Shore Conference Tournament and Shore Conference Class A North champion Freehold Township in the sectional quarterfinals. The win over Colts Neck was the greatest of his starts, with Pontari finishing off a seven-inning no-hitter in a 2-1 Middletown South win.
Friday's 108-pitch performance rivaled that no-hitter and, perhaps, surpassed given the magnitude of the game. Pontari flashed the best combination of stuff and control he has had all season, striking out nine while walking only one, which came with one out in the top of the seventh inning.
"I couldn't be good, I had to be great today," Pontari said. "I had to throw up a zero and that's what we did. Our team chipped away - we didn't have any big hits or amazing performances, but we played together as a team and that's what this sport is about."
"He was the perfect guy for this spot," Middletown South coach Chris LeMore said. "He has been in big games before for us and I just really wanted him to go out and enjoy it and take it all in."
Pontari gave up leadoff singles in each of the first three innings, but worked out of trouble each time, including a one-two-three inning in the third thanks to a pickoff at first base.
Middletown South's defense also came up big, playing an error-free game and getting key plays from shortstop Will Doyle, third baseman Evan Wood and first baseman Joe Stanzione.
"We remember what happened at Marlboro, when it was me vs. Capell," Pontari said. "He is a fantastic pitcher, but we were able to scratch two across today, I was able to hold them with my defense and we came out and got the win."
Heading into the top of the seventh, Pontari - who walked 11 batters in his last two starts against Red Bank Catholic and Freehold Township - had not walked a batter and finally issued his first free pass to Julian Buchman with one out in the inning.
Pontari bounced back with a strikeout on a 3-2 pitch to Antonio Vitale to move within an out of the championship. Marlboro No. 9 hitter Josh Mack hit a solid shot out toward left-center field on a 3-2 pitch from Pontari, but Tom DeMarco camped under it for the final out.
DeMarco drove in the first Middletown South run of the game when he smacked an RBI single to right field to score sophomore Ben Schild, who scalded a line drive to centerfield to lead off the top of the second with a single.
Middletown South added a second run in the bottom of the third when shortstop Will Doyle and senior left fielder Pat Eagone ran a double steal with Pontari at the plate. Pontari struck out on the pitch from Mustangs ace Mark Capell, but Marlboro catcher Andrew Bellone's throw to third carried into left field, allowing Doyle to score and Eagone to reach third.
"That is us in a nutshell," LeMore said. "We want to put the ball on the carpet, we want to play small-ball, we want to run the bases - no matter where I have gone, I have always said, 'Put pressure on the defense. Get on the top of the ball. Make them field the ball.' They epitomized it and they did a great job at it."
"That's what we have been doing all year," Pontari said. "We're not really the flashiest of teams. We're not going to hit six home runs, we're not going to to some of the crazy stuff. We're hard-working kids, we're been playing together since first grade and this might be our last game on this field together, so we just wanted to leave it out there."
Capell took the hard-luck loss in going the distance in his final start as a Mustang. The Yale commit allowed one earned run on three hits with two walks and nine strikeouts.
After the second inning, Capell did not allow a hit and after walking Doyle and Eagone to lead off the third, he retired 11 of the next 12. The lone batter to reach against Capell in inning's four through seven was a ball that Eagone hit softly back to Capell that he failed to field for an error.
"You have to tip your cap to (Capell), he is a really good pitcher, but in the last three weeks we saw Shane (Panzini), we saw (Montgomery ace and Rutgers commit Cole) Hanson, we saw (Freehold Township right-hander Zach) Gorman and we've seen Capell," LeMore said. "So we have been tested by some really good pitching."
At the plate, though, Pontari neutralized Capell, just as Capell did to Pontari. Both pitchers hit out of the No. 3 spot in the order Friday and both hit big home runs in the earlier rounds of the playoffs. Capell hit a solo home run in the first inning of Marlboro's 5-2 sectional semifinal win over Old Bridge, while Pontari drilled a tiebreaking solo shot in the fourth inning of a quarterfinal round win over Freehold Township.
Both pitchers finished 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, Pontari getting Capell looking on an outside fastball, swinging with a half swing on a curveball, and swinging on a high fastball.
"Both pitchers were batting in the three spot and both of us struck out three times," Pontari pointed out. "After I struck out, every time I had to get my glove, get my hat and cheer my team until it was time to go back out on the mound and throw strikes."
Pontari's championship gem caps a challenging two-year stretch for a Middletown South program that changed coaches after the 2019 season, graduated a significant senior class from a 2020 team that never got to see the field because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and had to withdraw from the Last Dance World Series Tournament Round in July because of multiple confirmed cases of COVID on the team.
"These kids have done whatever we've asked them to do and they have made major adjustments," LeMore said. "From
LeMore also knows about a worthwhile wait for a championship. The Point Pleasant Boro alumnus has had three other head-coaching jobs in the Shore Conference and the first of them, fittingly enough, was at Marlboro. He also made a stop at Red Bank, coached most recently at St. Rose for two seasons, and has been an assistant at Christian Brothers Academy, Middletown South and St. John Vianney.
None of those jobs, however, was Middletown South. LeMore is a teacher at Thompson Middle School and has seen most of Middletown South's baseball players pass through his classroom or the halls each work day. While he was crushed he could not coach last year's senior group and work with the young up-and-comers, he knew last year's set backs would not stop the program.
"I have been in a lot of places and coached a lot of kids and I cherish those moments that I had in the past, but there is no moment better than being the head coach of Middletown South and being a state champion," LeMore said. "I credit everything to these kids. They're all-in on fighting for each other, battling for each other and it's just a whole-team, program win."
Now that the Eagles have finished off their first sectional title in 10 years, they will turn their attention to winning their first overall Group IV championship since 1996. Middletown South will host South Jersey Group IV champion Clearview on Monday and will give the ball to Schild - its sophomore ace who will take a 7-0 record and a 0.31 ERA into the game. With the Group IV final scheduled for Saturday - five days after the group semifinals - Middletown South could also go with Schild in a potential state final.
"We've had three kids that we have really circled around during these tournaments with Ben, Matt and Evan (Wood)," LeMore said. "It's great to see. When Ben gets on the mound, they feel like they have a really good chance to win and I think they have started to feel like that no matter who is on the mound."
As much as Pontari proved he could embrace a big game on Friday, he would be content to watch his sophomore teammate pitch another 14 innings to finish off his brilliant sophomore campaign and a Group IV championship season at Middletown South.
"He is a really special kid," Pontari said. "He is a true sophomore with a lot of talent. He is one of the best baseball players I have ever seen and off the field, he is even better. I love being his teammate.
Middletown South 2, Marlboro 0
|Midd South (20-8)||0||1||1||0||0||0||X||2||3||0|
|Mark Capell (L, 4-3)||6||3||2||1||2||9||92|
|Matt Pontari (W, 3-2)||7||6||0||0||1||9||108|
|Middletown South||Game Stats|
|Tom DeMarco||1-3, RBI|
|Ben Schild||1-3, R|