Lions to lean on pitchers early in baseball season

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By Wayne Witkowski

Middletown High School North’s baseball team showed signs last season of its young program coming of age. Now it’s ready for a breakout season.

That is, if Mike Mercier can overcome early-season arm troubles.

“We have pitching, great chemistry and a lot of leadership and varsity experience. Now, we have to play together,” coach Justin Nathanson said.

The three leading pitchers return from last year’s team that went 14-11, which is a misleading record. The Lions lost half of their games to state powers Christian Brothers Academy (CBA), dropping four of their five matchups last season, and to Middletown High School South in a pair of Shore Conference A North Division showdowns. CBA went on to beat Middletown South in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game.

Middletown North opens its season at home April 1 in a 10 a.m. game against Middletown South.

The pitchers include juniors Tyler Ras, who committed as a sophomore to the University of Alabama, and Garrett French, another power pitcher, and Mercier, a senior who is committed to NCAA Division II program Felician College.

Mercier has struggled with discomfort in his arm in the preseason, and a medical professional is examining his rotator cuff this week. If he clears the exam, Mercier is expected to pitch and play first base when he’s not pitching. Whether Mercier can pitch and how much could be pivotal to the Lions’ late-season push in tournaments when depth on the mound is essential.

Pitching generally is ahead of hitting early in the season in high school baseball and with teams confined indoors for much of the preseason because of the wet weather conditions, pitching is even futher ahead of hitting for this season. That gives the Lions an added advantage during the early part of the season.

However, Nathanson has to fill an infield depleted by graduation. Many were the team’s leading hitters last season. He said that third baseman Kyle Capo, a .400 hitter, is the biggest loss at the plate. Cole Fluta is playing shortstop at Brookdale Community College, and first baseman Seth Ziegler is a medical redshirt in his first year at The College of New Jersey. Walter Schopf, the catcher last season, also is among the departed players.

The pitchers will fill those infield spots when they’re not on the mound. French, the starting second baseman last season, moves to shortstop. Ras starts at third base. Mark Cerbo, a senior, will play second base and Jake Dillon, a junior, will start at catcher.

Junior Justin Romano can play at shortstop when French pitches. If Ras pitches, junior Mike Donato can step in at third.

“We did lose some good hitters, but we have the right pieces with guys coming back who are going good and guys coming up from the [junior varsity team],” Ras said. “Last year, we were in the rankings and on the cusp of being one of the top few teams in the Shore with CBA and Toms River South. A good team wins with a solid four-man [pitching] rotation, and we have that. With our pitching, it’s doing the little things that will help — the sacrifice bunts and hit and run to move runners.”

Ras has grown 4 inches to 6 feet 4 inches tall and gained 20 pounds to 180 over the past two years. His fastball last season was clocked up to 91 mph.

“I’m throwing better,” he said. “My first two years were good for me to get to know Shore Conference play. This year, the word is confident. I’m more confident in my ability.”

Junior Brendan Doherty goes from left field to center this season and will play at first base when Mercier pitches. Sophomore Jason Timmons will start in right field and bat cleanup as a left-handed hitter. Left field remains up in the air, but senior Cody Sharkey could fill that spot.

Junior Chris Price also can play in the outfield and pitch.