By Bob Behre
The NJ Jays had just struck for two runs in the bottom of then seventh inning and had the bases loaded with one out, the winning run just 90 feet away in the person of David Pellitta.
Brandon Kuo, who had singled in his previous at bat, worked the count to 2-0 against NJ Giants righthanded reliever Lachlan Charles. Kuo jumped on a fastball from Charles and sent it on a line toward left-center field. Pellitta tagged at third.
But center fielder Ryan Sheppard, a soon-to-be freshman at Montclair State University, raced over, snared the liner and fired home to catcher Gavin Baratta to nail Pellitta by a step for the final out of the game. The 18U Diamond Nation World Series game time-limit precluded the game going into extra innings.
“Our shortstop and second baseman were trying to get me to play in more, but I kinda’ stayed back a little,” said Sheppard. “I just ran onto it, caught it and threw it as hard as I could.” Sheppard wasn’t in ideal position to make the throw home but was able to throw a bit across his body and still make an accurate throw.
Righthander Joe DiBartolomeo had shut out the Jays on four hits through the first six innings, but surrendered a leadoff single to Brendan Bucceri in the bottom of the seventh and a subsequent double to Matt Kroll. Bucceri was able to score on the double when the ball was mishandled in left field and Kroll reached third when the relay missed the cutoff man.
NJ Giants coach Tim Byron pulled DiBartolomeo for reliever Charles and Pellitta, 0-for-2 to that point, greeted him with a hard single through the middle to score Kroll with the tying run. Connor Woods, the Jays’ No. 3 hitter, then bunted Pellitta to second. Michael Pierce followed with a bloop single down the right field line as Pellitta stopped at third. Byron ordered Brian Torres to be intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at every base.
Kuo, who had hit the ball hard to left field for a single in the fifth, hit Charles’ 2-2 offering hard, too, but Sheppard was there to make the big play.
“Joe was dropping the curveball in and hitting spots,” said Byron, the Old Tappan High School coach. “He battled.”
DiBartolomeo, a Bergen Catholic grad bound for Fordham, was particularly efficient over the first six innings, facing just three batters over the minimum while striking out four and walking none. He and Jays starter Jack Love were the prime reason the game’s first six innings were played in a brisk 1:15.
“My curveball was definitely working well,” said DiBartolomeo, “and I was locating my fastball.”
The NJ Giants struck for single runs in the fourth and fifth innings to build a 2-0 lead that looked like it might hold up. Evan Bergman ripped a long grounds rule double to left-center field with two outs in the fourth and scored when Dan Ruggiero followed with a bloop single down the right field line.
Back-to-back singles by Andrew Rodriguez and Alex Clyde set up the Giants with runners on the corners in the fifth with none out. Love then threw wildly to first on a pickoff attempt, allowing Rodriguez to score and boost the lead to 2-0. Love averted further trouble from there. Love had kept the game scoreless an inning earlier when he stranded Sheppard at third base after the Seton Hall Prep grad had led off with a triple to left field.
DiBartolomeo got himself out of trouble in the fourth, too, after allowing a one-out triple to right-center field by Kroll. He also stranded Torres on second in the second inning after the second baseman drew a one out walk and promptly stole second.
Love permitted two runs, one of which was earned, on seven hits, struck out four and walked none. Woods came in to pitch a scoreless seventh and nearly ended up with a win.
The Giants would finish pool play at 0-1-3. The NJ Jays (0-2-1), steered by Voorhees High School coach Cory Kent, have one pool play game remaining. They were slated to face the Manalapan Braves at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
The 18U Diamond Nation World Series eight-team playoff begins at 10 a.m. on Thursday. The semifinals are set for 2:15 p.m. that afternoon and the winners return on Friday for the championship game on Field 1 at 12:15 p.m.
NOTES: NJ Giants center fielder Ryan Sheppard is the son of longtime Seton Hall Prep coach Mike Sheppard. The Giants second baseman, Bobby Sheppard, is the son of Seton Hall University coach Rob Sheppard.