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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Your run-of-the-mill Sunday comeback

By the third year I was covering Little League All-Star baseball at the Observer in 1986, I had already witnessed one Little League All-Star team come close to winning a section title in Brick American and another (Lakewood) win the sectional title and advance to the state Final Four.

And in '86, a first took place -- Toms River Little League became the first league within the mainly Ocean County District 18 to win all three All-Star titles, taking the Senior League, the 13-year-old (Junior League) and Little League crowns. It was a great time. And within the first weekend of August, Lakewood Little League was hosting the state Little League All-Star tournament.

Let's just say that I was going to be kept busy for the better part of the summer.

It had been a week since the Toms River Seniors had won their district championship for the second straight year, and for as good as this team was, I wasn't really sure they could get very far through Section 3 all the way to the final. They had pulled off one come-from-behind win in the sectional tournament against Old Bridge, and now TRLL had to go to Old Bridge on Sunday, July 20, 1986, to face off with a very good Marlboro team which had won District 19.

Marlboro teams, year in and year out, dominated on the Junior and Senior League levels in their district. And I honestly didn't think for the life of me they were going to lose to a rag-tag group of kids from Toms River, which probably had gotten as far as they were going to get. I knew this group of Senior Leaguers at Toms River from my work as an assistant coach to my dad's team. I knew the group that had been voted on to play All-Stars may have been good enough to win the district, but not very far beyond that.

So to win one game in the Section 3 tournament was icing. And as I made my way up Route 9 to Route 516 and west for about a mile to the Old Bridge Little League complex, I figured I was watching the end of the road. I had never been to the Old Bridge complex before, but it was very unique. The main building for concessions, meetings and equipment holding had an upstairs to it and a porch that you can watch whatever game was going on from overhead and behind the backstop. Very few complexes were like this one and I always looked forward to going to Old Bridge for seasons to come in sectional tournaments.

The manager of the Toms River team was a guy named Earl Pomeroy. I had known Earl for years since I was teammates on my dad's team with his oldest son Tom. Earl managed the Yankees and his youngest son, Chachi, was on the team. Meanwhile, the assistant coach was Bob Richards, who I knew for a few years as manager of the Giants team. Richards was the mouthpiece of the two because he was the more vocal, while Pomeroy was the laid-back guy, taking it all in.

This Toms River team, as I mentioned, was a mix of rag-tag players who were good, but not great. Still the team did have a couple of standouts on it. One was left-handed hitting first baseman-outfielder Brian Pietrewicz. The other was hard-throwing, hard-hitting left-hander Jim Lewentowicz.

For this game, it was Lewentowicz who was to start against Marlboro. He was Toms River's best pitcher, but there was one slight problem here -- he had a sore arm. Richards admitted he had a sore arm, but yet, he knew how far to push Lewentowicz -- who played for him on his regular-season Giants team and who once (I'm not kidding either about this) threw 207 pitches in a playoff game.

You read that right -- 207 pitches!! How do I know this? It was in 1985 against our team and guess who was in the dugout to count the pitches? It certainly would have gone beyond 207 had the last batter of the game in the 9-8 loss not swung at ball four at his eyeballs with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Pitch count? What pitch count?!

So Richards admits to me later that earlier in the day, he had his guy throw 40 warmup pitches ... with a sore arm. And being the gamer that Lewentowicz was, he told his manager he's ready to pitch. Worse, he was going on two day's rest. I never understimated the young man's durability, but I always considered the smarts it took to send him out there to pitch, when it was apparent, he didn't have his good stuff.

Toms River helped its pitcher with two runs in the top of the second, one of those coming on a home run by Mike Hildick. All seemed OK at that point, but I knew this Marlboro team was good still. And in the bottom of the second, I can see Lewentowicz's personal gas tank start creeping to "E."

Marlboro struck for five runs, highlighted by a two-run, opposite-field shot of about 350 feet by Tony Russomano. I started shaking my head as if to say, "Jimmy just doesn't give up opposite-field bombs like that."

Well after giving up five runs on seven hits in 1 2/3 innings, his coaches had seen enough. The problem was who could come in and keep things in check against this team that was thriving on hitting anything near the strike zone. That's when I started seeing Eddie Goldberg come in.

I had seen Eddie Goldberg pitch for Pomeroy's Yankees team during the season. Let's put it this way -- he was no Jim Lewentowicz. And I knew Eddie and his younger brother Todd because I also knew their dad, Ted, quite well. Ted Goldberg was a teacher at Hooper Avenue Elementary School when I was a student there and I knew him from his working at Ocean County College while I was a student. As a matter of fact, a year and a half before, I had done a feature story on Ted Goldberg for my college newspaper when he went to a New York Mets fantasy camp. I can still hear him in my head telling me once about meeting the real Mets, "Yeah, I was in the bullpen, smoking cigarettes with Gooden and Hernandez."

It was definitely a different time period, those '80s.

But now, it was up to Whoopi -- as his teammates and coaches knew him by -- to put out the fire. Now, I knew the bullpen was kind of short and part of the reason why I didn't think this team was going to go very far after winning district. And trust me, Marlboro wasn't fooled by the slow stuff that "Whoopi" was throwing. But its hitters started getting anxious and popped the ball up all over the place or hit groundballs right at fielders.

And Toms River got two of the runs back in the third inning. Starter Mike Barna got into trouble and loaded the bases. Hildick drew a walk to force in a run, and scrappy Vinny Rappaciulo delivered an RBI single. Barna escaped further damage and Marlboro held a 5-4 lead.

Marlboro kept putting runners on base against Goldberg, but couldn't push home runs as easily as it did against Lewentowicz. But in the fourth, it got what it thought would be an insurance tally when Joe Pignatelli doubled and scored on a Mark Carlin single.

However, a 6-4 deficit was only adding fuel to Toms River's fire. Suddenly, I realized this big, bad Marlboro team wasn't so big and wasn't so bad. Toms River kept answering whatever Marlboro kept doing. In the sixth inning, I knew this was not going to be just any ordinary run-of-the-mill ball game when Rob Richards, Richards' son, came up to start the sixth. He got a hold of Barna's first pitch and laced an opposite-field shot to right field. I figured it was over the right fielder's head for at least a double.

Suddenly I look up and that ball just kept carrying. When it finally landed, it was on the grass in an abandoned area behind the right-field fence. It took some time to pick my jaw up from off the floor, but Toms River had cut the lead to 6-5 on a home run from an unlikely source.

Now I believed this team had it in it to win the game. With two outs later in the inning, Pietrewicz stole second base. Ken Lanzel then took to the opposite field for a base hit to right to bring in Pietrewicz and tie this up at 6-all.

And all the while, Goldberg was avoiding lasers coming at him from the other side. By the end of the game, Marlboro would have left 13 runners on base -- 11 against Goldberg.

With the game still tied at 6-6, Toms River came up in the seventh inning. Barna was still in there and gave up a walk to Joe Rose to start the inning. Steve Maddalena came in to pinch-run for him and Goldberg advanced him up a base with a beautiful sacrifice bunt. Rappaciulo walked and Richards poked a single to right field to load the bases for Chachi Pomeroy.

At this point, I'm thinking, "I'll believe any scenario now."

And just like this team, the outcome was unbelievable in Pomeroy's at-bat. He hit a grounder at shortstop Steven Ford. Ford had a perfect throw to catcher Pignatelli, who only needed to catch the ball for the forceout. Pignatelli got Ford's throw a little low as Maddalena slid into the plate at the same time.

Wouldn't you know it, the ball squirted free behind Pignatelli. I remember saying with a bunch of Old Bridge Little League officials around me, "I can't believe this." 

Marlboro held firm after that, but down 7-6, it had the confidence and swagger to hit Goldberg. Getting a run, though, was another story.

Ford singled, his third hit of the game, to lead off. That brought up Barna, who stood to be the losing pitcher in this one. Barna hit a low line drive out to right field. The ball kept sinking as Rob Richards kept coming in to try and make a play. If the ball isn't caught, I can see it bouncing behind Richards and going to the wall and Barna being off to the races to win the game on an inside-the-park home run. After everything Toms River had gutted out on this Sunday afternoon, was this the way it was going to end perhaps? In a game that was marked by the word "crazy," it wouldn't have been a shocker.

But before the ball could hit the ground, Richards made a shoe-string catch. Once the umpire ruled it a catch, Ford was dead meat at first base as Richards threw a strike to Pietrewicz to finish out the double play. And when Goldberg struck out Pignatelli for his only strikeout of the game, the craziness came to an end in the form of a Toms River win.

It marked the only time in the game that Marlboro didn't leave a runner on base to end an inning. And all Goldberg did in his 5 1/3 innings of relief to get the win was allow one run on 10 hits.

Goldberg didn't have to be Lewentowicz, but he was bigger in the fact he saved a bullpen lacking in depth. He simply bobbed and weaved his way through all the punches Marlboro threw in picking up 17 hits in the game.

Seventeen hits and no victory. That doesn't happen much.

That sigh of relief you heard in lower Middlesex County was Bob Richards' after the game. They won a game which, in hindsight, they had no business winning. And they went another step further than they had been thought to go.

The ride ended two nights later on their Toms River complex field in the Section 3 final against District 11 champion North Wall, 10-3, which bombed three home runs in that game and felt more comfortable on Toms River's field than the hosts did.

But being there was surprising enough for the rag-tag Toms River team. It had gone further than anyone -- including myself -- expected it to go.

Part of what made 1986 a fun year to cover Little League ball in Ocean County.

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