Baseball – Toms River East Repeats as New Jersey Little League State Champions
POMPTON PLAINS -- While the 2021 Toms River East Little League team rampaged to the state championship last summer for the first time in 22 years, the group that was one year behind those Toms River 12-year-old all-stars made a similar run as 11-year-olds, only to come up one win short of their own state championship.
So while Saturday represented an opportunity for the Toms River East Little League program to become the first repeat champion in New Jersey since the celebrated Toms River East teams of 1998 and 1999, for the actual players on the TR East team, it was a chance for redemption.
One year after losing the state championship game to Morristown American as 11-year-olds, Toms River East returned as 12's and dominated the state championship tournament, capped by a 9-0 win Sunday over Rutherford to win a second straight state title for Toms River East Little League.
"It's every kid's dream to win a Little League state championship and go to the Regional in Bristol," Toms River East manager Mike Mendes said. "These kids have been talking about this ever since we lost in the state final game last year as 11-year-olds. All offseason, they have been working their butts off and they deserve it."
The victory marks the first time since 1999 that a program won consecutive state championships, with the 1998 and 1999 "Beast of the East" Toms River East squads reaching the Little League World Series in back-to-back seasons, including a world championship in 1998.
"They followed the lead of last year's team that went to Williamsport," Mendes said. "They saw what it took and they weren't going to be denied."
"It feels amazing," winning pitcher Logan Macchia said. "We got second place last year, but this year we came out on top."
During a three-game sweep of the four-team state tournament at Pequonnock Little League, Toms River East outscored its opponents 31-1 and Macchia played a major role in keeping his team's runs-against number as low as it was.
"I felt great out there," Macchia said. "I knew I had it in me. I knew I could come into the states and be one of the best players out there."
Macchia fired 5 2/3 scoreless innings on Sunday before hitting the 85-pitch limit for the game, giving him 8 2/3 scoreless innings in three games -- nearly half of the total innings Toms River East played.
"We really only used three pitchers in this tournament: Logan Macchia, Brady Gillen and Christian Moscaro," Mendes said. "They pitched well, they executed everything that was called, they hit spots. They did a great job over these three games and I couldn't be any prouder. Any time one of those three are on the mound, I have all the confidence in the world that we're going to win the game."
Macchia allowed at least one baserunner in each inning, but never relented thanks to a quality defense behind him and a fastball that he could use to overpower hitters when the need arose. The TR East right-hander struck out the side in both the second and fifth innings and finished with seven punchouts for the game. Macchia also allowed six hits, one walk and a hit-by-pitch.
"I was just like, 'I'm into this, I don't care about the baserunners, we're up by a lot, they don't mean anything. Just strike these batters out and get out of this inning,'" Macchia said. "I like throwing the fastball a lot, because it's my best pitch. The curveball is for when I need it."
After Macchia worked around a one-out hit-by-pitch for a scoreless first inning, his offense gave him an immediate cushion in the bottom of the inning. Rutherford opted to start Jacob Rodriguez over the harder-throwing Quinn Weber after Toms River East knocked the latter around when the two teams met in the opening game for both on Wednesday.
"I thought they might go that route," Mike Mendes said of Rutherford's choice to start Rodriguez. "He has good offspeed stuff and we faced (Weber) in the first game and we hit him pretty well. (Weber) is a great pitching, but I thought maybe they would try something different and our kids did a nice job staying consistent with our approach."
Michael Mendes -- the son of the TR East manager -- walked and Brady Gillen singled to start the rally, but Rodriguez got a strikeout and a fielder's choice groundout to move within a run of escaping unharmed.
Mascaro, however, came through with an RBI single to center and after a walk to Jake Gallagher loaded the bases, Deklin Sloan came through with a two-out, two-run double to right-center to stretch the TR East lead to 3-0. Sloan was not in the starting lineup by Mendes called his number early for a key at-bat and he delivered.
"We know what our bench players are," Mendes said. "We built this team to have a solid field and a strong bench with good hitters: Deklin, Bryce Tomitz, Kevin O'Donnell and Gavin Senger are all big hitters for us We know that going in, so when we put a sub in the game, we're not expecting an out. We're looking for a big hit."
Toms River East chased Rodriguez in the second, with Jayce Cappello delivering the final nail: a two-run double down the left-field line that scooted all the way to the fence, scoring Mendes from second and Gillen from first to make it 5-0.
"He hung a curveball and it was just sitting there, so I hit it," Cappello said. "I saw it get past the left-fielder so I knew we were going to score two runs."
Cappello also flashed some leather in the field for Toms River East, including a nifty double play in which he picked a sharp groundball on a short-hop to his glove side, tagged the second-base bag and fired to first for the inning-ending twin-killing in the fourth.
"Our defense has been really good," Cappello said. "In districts and sections, we weren't really hitting the ball as much as we wanted to, but our defense has just been doing the job the entire time. Now that we're hitting better, we just have everything going."
Cappello also made a head's-up play to end the top of the third. With one out and runners on first and second, Michael Mendes squeezed a fly ball in right field for the second out and fired the ball in to Cappello in the baseline between second and third base. After catching the relay throw from the outfield, Cappello nearly got to second base in time to tag Weber advancing a base. Cappello then noticed some commotion and Weber running back toward first base and realized Weber had failed to tag up. Cappello ran the ball first, tagged the bag and ended the inning.
"Once I saw him running back, I knew to get the ball to first base because he had left early," Cappello said. "It felt good, because when you make a play like that, it really gets our team up and it shuts the other team down."
After Cappello's two-run double made it 5-0, it was then that Rutherford went to Weber and the right-hander was more effective Sunday than in Wednesday's 12-0 loss to Toms River East. He struck out the first two batters he faced to end the bottom of the second and allowed one unearned run over his first 2 2/3 innings of work in the championship game.
In the fifth, however, Toms River East put the game completely out of reach by finally solving Weber. Moscaro led off with a single -- the first hit allowed by Weber on Sunday -- and Gavin Senger followed with a pinch-hit walk. Weber got a strikeout for the first out, but a passed ball moved the runners into scoring position and Bryce Tomitz took advantage with a sacrifice fly for the seventh Toms River run.
Catcher Ryan McHugh then came through with an RBI single to make it 8-0 and Mendes took a fastball off the helmet to add another baserunner. Mendes, according to his father, has been hit in the helmet four times this season, but was okay to continue after collecting himself on the ground for a little more than a minute.
Gillen then stepped in and delivered an RBI single to extend the lead to 9-0, which was the fourth time the starting centerfielder reached base. Gillen finished 3-for-4 and also reached on an error in his third at-bat.
Weber got out of the inning with a strikeout to prevent the 10-run rule from ending the game, but his team faced an insurmountable deficit with only three outs left. Macchia gave Rutherford a glimmer of hope by walking the leadoff man in the top of the sixth, but recovered to strikeout the next batter and induce a flyout to Gillen in centerfield.
"We were hoping in the dugout that Logan could close it out," Mendes said. "He pitched a heck of a game and he asked me when he came off the field after the top of the fifth, 'Coach, am I going back out next inning?' I said, 'This is your game, son. Go close it.' He hit his pitch count, so we had to pull him out."
The flyout to center marked Macchia's 85th pitch, which required Mike Mendes to bring Gillen in to try to record the final out. The right-hander pitched his way into a 2-2 count and fired a fastball for strike three, the final out and the championship-clinching pitch for Toms River East.
Making its second straight trip to the Region Tournament, Toms River East will play in the four-team Metro Region -- which is a newly-formed region for 2022. In past years, New Jersey was part of the Mid-Atlantic Region with New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Washington D.C. This year, the four-team Metro Region includes New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island and the tournament is slated for first pitch on Saturday in Bristol, Conn.
"It's crazy," Macchia said. "Toms River just keeps winning and winning every year, so when we got here, we were like, 'Let's win this tournament, go to Bristol and come out of the East.' Last year's team was great, we knew we had it in us and we just followed in their shoes."