By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — Following a preseason trip to Chandler, AZ., Mainland Regional’s bats went cold at the start of the season as the Mustangs lost to St. Augustine, 6-2, then dropped an 11-1 decision to Cedar Creek. As the temperature has begun to rise, the bats have started heating up again.
Mainland followed up a 20-3 drubbing of Lower Cape May on Friday with an 11-1 victory over host Oakcrest on Monday afternoon as the Mustangs evened their record at 2-2 and handed the Falcons their first loss of the season.
Nick Nutile and Anthony Capasso, the top two hitters in Mainland’s lineup, did most of the damage, as Nutile went 3-for-5 with a two-run home run, three RBIs and a run scored, while Capasso added four hits and a run. Starting pitcher Nick Atohi got in on the offensive barrage, going 2-for-4 with a pair of runs scored, and Matt Epstein and Mike Dalessio each scored a pair of runs.
“We were slow at the plate in the beginning of the season, but we’re hoping we’re just getting warmed up,” Nutile said. “I’ve been working on outside (pitches) all winter. I’ve had coaches pitching me outside to get me prepared, and it’s paying off for me.”
Mainland (2-2) got on the board early, scoring three runs in the first inning. Atohi drove in the first run with an RBI groundout before DH Sean Dillon stroked a two-run single to center field. The Mustangs added to the lead in each of the first four innings to get some separation and take some stress off Atohi, who scattered seven hits while striking out five in five innings before Matt Lawler finished things up with three strikeouts in the bottom of the sixth.
“I had to come out strong. I wasn’t really feeling it like I was a couple of games ago and my curveball wasn’t really working early. I had to bring it in later in the game to get some strikes,” Atohi said. “I was just trying to paint the outside corner with my fastball, and they were popping it up and rolling it over for ground balls.”
“Him coming up clutch in some key spots really helped us keep the momentum going,” Nutile added.
“We struggled a little bit putting the barrel on the baseball today,” said Oakcrest coach Sean Olson. “The first two games we hit the ball well, but that’s a testament to (Mainland’s) pitchers. They threw well and dominated the strike zone with multiple pitches, and kept us off balanced enough to not really be able to answer the runs they were putting up. It’s just one of those days.”
Nutile hit an opposite field two-run homer to left field in the second to push the lead to 5-0 before Oakcrest (2-1) answered with its only run in the bottom of the inning, on a one-out double down the left-field line. But Mainland tacked on a pair of runs in the third to make it 7-1. Nutile stroked an RBI single to left and Capasso added a run-scoring single. Mainland rallied for a couple more runs in the fourth to stretch its lead to 10-1 and put the game out of reach.
“We didn’t start out like the Mainland team we should have been the first two games, but we’re coming together and starting to hit the ball well. The first two games were just not the way we should have been playing,” Atohi said. “I feel more confident than I did in preseason, but I know I still have to work my way up to the way I was throwing last year. I have a lot more work to do.”
Olson said the Falcons will move on quickly from this loss and begin to focus on Wednesday’s game against Cedar Creek.
“Even though we’re two weeks in, this was only our third game because of the way the weather has been, so it’s still kind of new to us because we do have so many younger guys and inexperienced guys,” he said. “Three games in, we’re definitely not seasoned at all. We’re still trying to figure some things out with the pitching rotation and in the lineup, so we just have to keep going along. To be 2-1 through three games is nothing to stress about. This is our first loss and you have to take your bruises when they come, you just have to be able to bounce back from them.
“We started off well and I hope we can return to the swings we were having the first two games. You’re not going to hit every day.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN