By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MARGATE — The Margate Hurricanes had ace Lou Pepper on the hill Monday night in Game 4 of the Atlantic County Baseball League championship series. A win would have made Pepper the league’s all-time winningest pitcher, and would have allowed Margate to send the series to a decisive Game 5 on Tuesday night in Hammonton.
But Hammonton is the new bully on the block, and defended its title by pounding out double-digit hits and runs in a 13-9 victory. Hammonton won the series, 3-games-to-1, and for the second straight year captured the league title after losing in walk-off fashion to Margate in 2014.
Hammonton (26-5) got on the board early, taking a 1-0 lead on a solo home run by former Atlantic City star Junior Mejia, then exploded for seven runs in the top of the fourth to push its lead to 8-0. Margate (24-7) answered with a pair of two-run homers in its half of the fourth to cut the deficit in half, but Hammonton’s offense continued to tack on runs in support of pitchers Kevin Baxter and Brad Mountain.
“It was unbelievable. I get on Junior all the time, telling him he can’t hit. But he’s always in the batting cage before games. He works hard, and he deserves it,” said Baxter, a former St. Augustine Prep star who recently finished his career at Rutgers. “Margate has a really good lineup. I can’t seem to find a way to get Chris Knott out for some reason. They can hit, one-through-nine, every single one of them. They are better than some of the college teams I’ve faced.”
“I surprised myself. He threw me a fastball right down the middle. He had me in a 1-2 count, so I was surprised he threw me that fastball. Usually when I go up to the plate, I’m looking to hit a fastball anyway, no matter what the count is. I want to hit a fastball,” said Mejia, 32, who won an NCAA Division II national championship with the University of Tampa during his college playing days. “That was a focus for us was to get ahead early and stay ahead. We were fortunate to be able to keep it going throughout the series.”
Pepper, who has 131 career wins and less than 15 losses, ran into trouble in the fourth when Juan and Junior Mejia both reached base and Matt Ingemi followed with an infield single. Run-scoring singles by Kenny Morgenweck and L.T. Struble pushed the lead to 3-0 and Frank Galeota’s infield single made it 4-0. Brett Uhing followed with a two-run single to left and two more runs scored on an infield error as the lead swelled to 8-0.
Junior Mejia said he knew the game was far from over, however.
“I knew that 8-0, still in the fourth inning, wasn’t enough. These guys, with a couple of swings, they can change the game in a hurry,” he said. “We were surprised that we were able to beat them in four games. I anticipated the series going all five games, but our hitting showed up and that was the difference this year. We were all ready to go every game, and we were able to support our pitching staff.”
“We talked about it since last week, that we wanted to try to score a run or two in the first couple of innings and play it that way. But that went out the window real quick,” said Hammonton coach Sam Rodio, who said he anticipated a low-scoring game with Pepper and Baxter on the hill. “Each game in this series was a little different style. It was more like a football score tonight, but it just shows that when two good teams go at it, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Kevin Fitzgerald launched a two-run home run to center field in the bottom of the fourth to get Margate on the board, and Chris Knott added another two-run homer to shave the lead in half. Hammonton tacked on single runs in the fifth and sixth to make it 9-5, but Margate put up a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth to finally chase Baxter. Mountain — a hard-throwing lefty — came on in relief and got former college All-American Jason Law to fly out to center field with the tying runs on base to end the threat.
“I was in the bullpen (before the game) and we knew Kevin didn’t have his best stuff, but we also know — and the reason he is on this team — is because he is such a tough competitor,” Rodio said. “Usually he does a really good job of staying within himself and not trying to do too much.”
Rodio considered taking Baxter out after the second two-run home run in the fourth, but Baxter didn’t want to hear it.
“I was struggling with it for what seemed like hours in the dugout. I tried to think of every scenario. I went out there the first time and he fought me. He ended up being right,” Rodio said. “I went out there again just to go over something. You want to get him to go as long as he can, but you also want to keep that lead. I knew I had Brad down there in the bullpen ready to go. It was a tough decision, but I think we made the right one at the right time.”
Hammonton extended its lead to 13-7 with four runs in the top of the seventh and Margate answered with a pair in the bottom of the seventh before Hammonton center fielder Nick Crescenzo ended the game — and the series — with a leaping grab at the wall in center on a drive by Dug Hiltner.
“I just had to keep fighting. My offense did a heck of a job, they got us ahead early and kept tacking on runs. There’s nothing more a pitcher can ask for when the offense and defense plays great,” Baxter said. “It feels great. The whole reason I came to this league was to win it and pitch against them, because I knew how prestigious they were. It feels good to get back-to-back titles, and hopefully we can do it again next year.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN