By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP -- Trailing 2-1, Egg Harbor Township loaded the bases in the top of the seventh inning against Cape-Atlantic League rival Absegami in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs on Monday. But the Eagles had one out, and Braves ace Matt Ardente — arguably the best pitcher in South Jersey — was on the hill and two outs away from closing out a playoff win.
Eagles coach Bryan Carmichael called for the suicide squeeze play with J.J. Swentkowski at the plate and the speedy Justin Epifanio at third base. Why not? The Eagles were playing with house money. They came in as the No. 10 seed with nothing to lose, so Carmichael figured a risky play might be just what EHT needed to tie the game.
It didn’t go exactly according to plan, but in the end the move worked out. Epifanio sprinted toward the plate and the pitched sailed high and inside and got past Absegami catcher Steve Hewa as he was attempting to catch the pitch and make a tag in one motion. Epifanio scored to tie the game at 2, and the Eagles tacked on two more runs to take a 4-2 lead. Tyler Fischer came on in relief after starter Brandon Riggs ran into trouble in the bottom of the seventh, and nailed down the save as the Eagles escaped with a 4-3 victory.
“I got a really good jump because (Ardente) has a long wind-up, so I felt good with the jump I had. I felt like I was there in plenty of time,” Epifanio said. “We were just grinding out at-bats. As the leadoff hitter (in the seventh) I just had to find a way to get on base. It wasn’t something I had to think about, I just had to go do it. I was just a piece in the puzzle, found a way on base. Everything fell in line after that and it worked out the way we wanted. The balls bounced the way we wanted them to.”
Epifanio started the seventh by reaching on an infield single, beating the throw from Absegami shortstop Matt Branco on a high chopper. Nick Pera then laid down a sacrifice bunt, but an infield error allowed him to reach safely and put runners at first and second with no outs. The error was one of three the Braves made in the inning that aided EHT’s rally.
The second error loaded the bases, and after a strikeout, Epifanio raced home to tie the game, 2-2. Pera scored on the third error of the inning to give the Eagles a 3-2 lead, and Andrew Holmes scored on Gaby Carino’s fielder’s choice. Ardente worked out of the jam by getting a groundout, giving the seventh-seeded Braves one last chance to tie the game.
Drew Roesch and Tyler Welch both reached on singles with one out, putting the tying runs on base. After a pop-out, Franco Ruiz laced a single to right-center that scored Roesch and brought the Braves within one, 4-3. But Fischer worked out of the jam by getting a groundout to end the game.
“It’s awesome. We play them a lot, so we are familiar with them. Coming back against those guys, that’s a good win. We haven’t won a playoff game in about four or five years,” said EHT catcher Mike Lahoud.
The Eagles (15-11) took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, as Swentkowski singled with the bases loaded. EHT starter Brandon Riggs cruised through the first three innings before Absegami scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth to take a 2-1 lead. Christian Barnett tied the game at 1-1 with an RBI single and T.J. Neil followed with a sacrifice fly to plate courtesy runner Chris Dolan.
Riggs pitched an outstanding game, allowing six hits while striking out four in 6 1/3 innings. Fischer allowed just one hit to record the save.
“Riggs always comes up big for us in big games,” Lahoud said. “He won some big games last year, a couple this year. He just hits his spots. He goes after guys and hits his spots, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Riggs also got some stellar defensive help. Epifanio finished with eight assists at shortstop, and Carino made a diving catch in right field in the third to rob Omar Nunez of an extra-base hit.
“There was no pressure on me. I just thought about it like a regular-season game. I think we play better when we are in a tough spot. We definitely had a lot of energy on the bench,” said Riggs, a junior right-hander.
Epifanio said it was a huge confidence boost for the Eagles to know that they could get past a tough pitcher in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve always been back and forth with these guys, and (Ardente) is one of the best pitchers in South Jersey and probably the best pitcher we will see in the playoffs. It was huge for us to get a win like that, just grinding every pitch,” Epifanio said. “We knew we weren’t going to come in here and hit the heck out of the ball. We knew we would have to grind out at-bats against him. Last year it was the same way. And the year before that, and the year before that. We knew what we were going to see, and the coaches had us well prepared, as always, and we just came out and executed.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Junior Brandon Riggs earned the win against Absegami, allowing six hits in six-plus innings while striking out four.