Ocean City-Upper Township team falls short

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Joe Gallagher Joe Gallagher

The Ocean City-Upper Township Little Leaguers can claim to be the second best team in New Jersey. But they were just inches from being the best.

On Monday night, Toms River center fielder John Giordano made a diving catch for the final out of the state championship game with the bases loaded with OC-UT players to end a 7-6 Toms River victory.

It was the seventh time in the last 20 years that a Toms River team has won the state championship. But, had that ball off the bat of Eric Greenling dropped in, OC-UT would almost surely have taken the lead.

Giordano struck out 13 in five and one-third innings, including the leadoff batter in the sixth. The first batter against Giordano’s relief pitcher grounded out but Luke Bowman walked and Brady singled. Brock Mercado then singled home Bowman and Toms River walked Gallagher intentionally to load the bases. Then, when the count went to 2-0 on Greenling, they changed pitchers. Greenling hit the first pitch from the new pitcher for what looked like a hit that would give OC-UT the lead. But Giordano took that hit away from him.

The irony is that Giordano, one of the state’s best pitchers, had just moved to center field after his pitch count advanced past the maximum of 85. But he still managed to make a big play to win the game.

OC-UT hit the hard-throwing right hander. In fact, Gannon Brady led off the game with a home run and Joe Gallagher followed with another just one out later, giving the local all stars a 2-0 lead. Toms River tied the game in the second when a double play attempt with the bases loaded by OC-UT failed because the second baseman’s foot slipped making the pivot on the base and his low throw bounced past the first baseman.

Toms River got two more runs in the third inning with a two-run home run and another pair in the fourth on a pair of RBI singles. That gave Toms River a 6-2 lead.

But OC-UT didn’t get to the state final by conceding. In the fifth, Brady was safe on an error with one out and Brock Mercado followed with an opposite field home run. Joe Gallagher singled and later scored the third run in the inning on Brian Furey’s two-out single. That cut the Toms River lead to 6-5.

Toms River added a very important run in the bottom of the fifth. Furey had done a good job pitching, keeping his team close throughout. One of the six runs was unearned and all six of Toms River’s runs had scored with two out.

But, in the fifth, Furey reached the maximum pitch count and was relieved by left-handed Jake McKenna. He gave up a single, then struck out a batter for the second out. The next hitter drove a ball into the right-center gap for a single but the runner on first managed to race around to score, making it 7-5. Another two-out run.

And that set the stage for the frustrating finish in the top of the sixth.

“From top to bottom this team played hard, solid baseball,” said Coach Greg Brady. “We had eight different kids hit home runs but that wasn’t really the key. They played excellent defense and never quit. They always thought they would win and came very close to winning them all.”

OC-UT dropped into the loser’s bracket of the state tournament last Friday after suffering its first loss after nine straight wins. Gallagher hit a two-run home run in the first inning and Brady pitched shutout, one-hit baseball into the sixth before his pitch count forced him to leave. But Toms River hit a pair of two-run home runs with two outs and won the game, 4-2.

OC-UT then fell behind Somerset Hills on Saturday, 7-2, before rallying to score eight times to win, 10-7, and earn another shot at Toms River. Greenling and Mercado hit home runs with Brady, Bowman and Isaac Eberly each hitting doubles. Greenling was the winning pitcher in relief.

That lined OC-UT against Toms River again on Sunday. If Toms River won, they would be state champions. An OC-UT victory would force the final championship game on Monday. OC-UT jumped out to a 7-1 lead and won, 10-6, behind Gallagher’s strong pitching and home runs by Brady, Gallagher and Gavyn Fox.

Toms River moves on to the Mid-Atlantic Region Tournament in Bristol, CT, starting on Saturday. The winner of that competition will advance to the Little League World Series from August 14-24 in Williamsport PA. 

The Ocean City-Upper Township players will celebrate their District 16 title and the first Section 4 championship ever by a team from Cape May County.

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