Eastern’s Barbera two-hits St. Augustine for Diamond Classic crown

By Bob Behre | March 26, 2020

(It’s never a bad time for a Diamond Classic rehash. The best two South Jersey teams in 2018 hooked up in this eight-inning thriller at Eastern High School and it did not disappoint).

Jesse Barbera certainly knows how to go out in style. The senior shuffled off into the scholastic sunset after staring down one of the state’s more potent lineups and the No. 1 team in the NJ.com Top 20.

The righthander pitched a two-hitter to guide No. 10 Eastern to a 4-1 eight-inning victory over top-ranked St. Augustine Prep in the championship game of the 45th Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic on Monday in Voorhees.

Eastern struck for three runs in the top of the eighth inning off St. Augustine’s bullpen to bust up a tense 1-1 affair.

For the uninitiated, the Diamond Classic crowns an all-groups champion of the seven-county area that encompasses South Jersey and is as competitive and unforgiving a tournament as they come.

The victory gave Eastern (25-6) its second Diamond Classic title in three years and Barbera won both of those games. The Bucknell-bound pitcher shutdown Gloucester Catholic, 6-1, as a precocious sophomore in the 2016 Diamond final.

Barbera, in photo above, struck out three and walked two in a very economical eight-inning complete game that saw him throw just 104 pitches, six shy of the NJSIAA’s 110-pitch limit. He was matched through seven innings by St. Augustine righthander Gerry Peacock.

Peacock limited Eastern to one run on three hits over seven innings, struck out 10 and walked three. The righthander reached the pitch limit while striking out Devin Hunt to strand an Eastern runner on second in the top of the seventh.

Jesse Barbera’s arm and Jack Herman’s bat were integral in Eastern’s outstanding 25-7 2018 season that included South Jersey’s Diamond Classic championship.

Eastern’s three-run eighth inning began, innocuously, with one of the state’s best hitters, Jack Herman, drawing a two-out walk off of reliever James Weston. “Coach (Rob Christ) gave me the green light at 3-0 but I didn’t get my pitch,” said Herman. “But anything to get on base and help my team.” Herman, an outstanding hitter and center fielder, was anxiously awaiting developments with the MLB Draft, which began Monday evening.

Cleanup hitter Dylan Stezzi struck out three times against Peacock but laced a 1-0 pitch down the right field line against Weston to chase Herman to third base. Matt Karpousis then stepped in with an equally unimpressive 0-for-3 against Peacock. But Weston uncorked a wild pitch in a 1-1 count that allowed Herman to easily score the go-ahead run as courtesy runner Zach Davis moved to second.

Karpousis would conclude a seven-pitch at bat with a hard single to center to score Davis, extend Eastern’s lead to 3-1 and chase Weston. Then A. J. Funari greeted lefthander Jack Halbruner with an RBI single to center field to boost the lead to 4-1.

Barbera needed just five pitches to navigate a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth as Eastern began its celebration.

“I was on adrenaline in the eighth, so I felt 100 percent,” said Barbera. He, in fact, showed the same urgency he had all game, one that melded perfectly with the Diamond Classic’s speed-up rules.

“Other teams complain all the time about how fast I work,” said Barbera. “That’s why I like the Diamond so much. No one can complain.”

The Diamond Classic lists 10 speed-up rules that must be followed or infractions are penalized with either a ball or a strike, depending on the offender. Peacock, for example, was assessed a ball to the second Eastern hitter of the game after his infielders made one-too-man throws after the first out of the game.

Barbera had no trouble with the rule that says a pitcher must begin his windup 20 seconds after receiving the ball. In fact, Barbera was likely in single digits all game.

“I think his tempo got us a little off balance,” said St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone. “He was throwing strikes and I think we were a little impatient at the plate.”

Both teams scored a run in the third inning and Eastern got on the board first after lefty-hitting Ron Silvestro led off the inning with a double down the right field line. Isaac Fendrick then drew a walk to put Eastern in business. Hunt, however, bounced into a double play, as Silvestro took third.

Barbera then took care of his own business by singling to center to score Silvestro with the game’s first run.

St. Augustine evened the score with two outs in the bottom of the inning when Josh Hood blasted an opposite field home run to right field. The right fielder Funari had a beat on the ball, leaped at the wall and even got a piece of the ball as it tumbled over the wall.

That was St. Augustine’s first hit of the game and Peacock’s one-out single in the sixth would be the Hermits’ last.

“They have some great hitters on that team,” said Barbera. “We had a nice report on them and I just trusted my coaches. I was working in and out and keeping my curveball low.”

Eastern was eliminated in the NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 4 tournament quarterfinals by Shawnee on May 24, so had 10 days of downtime prior to squaring off with St. Augustine. The Hermits are still in the heat of the post-season as they play host to Notre Dame of Ewing in the Non-Public A South final on Tuesday, a game that certainly impacted the way Bylone used his bullpen against Eastern.

“That’s the big one for us,” said Bylone of the state tournament. “That’s always our No. 1 goal.”

(Editors note: St. Augustine would indeed rebound from the loss to Eastern and win the 2018 NJSIAA Non-Public A championship).

St. Augustine, which won Diamond Classic championships in 2014 and 2017, won its first state title in 2011 when it captured the Non-Public A championship. The Hermits fell in the past two Non-Public A finals.

Eastern won its only group championship in 2013 when it claimed the Group 4 title. Eastern had not reached a Diamond Classic final until 2015 when it lost to Bishop Eustace, 4-1. It’s has now played in three of the past four Diamond finals.

“I feel we’re the No. 1 team in South Jersey this year,” said Christ. “I have so much respect for St. Augustine and that’s what makes this championship even better. They have at least seven guys in that lineup that can really hurt you.”

It all came down to Barbera, who may very well have saved his best career game for his very last.

“We had a game plan and Jesse executed it,” said Christ. “It’s only a game plan if it’s not executed.”

NOTES: Barbera concluded the season at 7-1 with a 1.38 ERA.

The Diamond Classic is named for South Jersey baseball legend Joe Hartmann, who was a teacher, coach and athletic director at Eastern High School, the site of the championship game. The field at Eastern High School is also named for Hartmann.

The 86 year-old Hartmann greeted each Eastern player with a handshake after the game. Hartmann is one of the true gentlemen of the game in the Garden State, one who is a joy to talk with about the game of baseball. He’s been a fixture at the Diamond Classic and at the NJSIAA state finals for decades.

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