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Eagles still juggling lineup as baseball opener approaches

By Wayne Witkowski

It’s anyone’s guess, including coach Ryan Spillane, who will be in the starting lineup and where they’ll be playing in the field when Middletown High School South’s baseball team opens its season at home April 1 at 10 a.m. against Middletown High School North.

Even pitching is something that may be accomplished by committee.

John Martin, who is committed to a college career at Monmouth University, is an established starter with a misleading 5-3 record from last season that included a gritty 2-0 loss to Christian Brothers Academy in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, but he’s had elbow issues in the preseason. There’s plenty of pitching, but none right now can measure up to Martin, who was a second team All-Shore pitcher last season with a 1.03 ERA.

“We’re hoping he’ll be back for opening week,” Spillane said. “We’ll lean on him for innings.”

In the meantime, the coaching staff has its work cut out, and that includes alumnus Howie Brey, a former star pitcher at Middletown South and Rutgers University who is looking to help the Eagles’ pitching before heading off to his second year in the minor leagues in the Houston Astros organization as a late-inning reliever. The left-handed Brey, 22, worked his way up from Greeneville of the Appalachian Rookie League to the A League with Tri-City of the New York Penn League last season. His younger brother, Trevor, is a good prospect at catcher and second base for the Eagles.

Joe Spraka, a senior right-hander, has a brisk fastball that has earned him the No. 2 spot in the rotation, which he can keep if his control gets better. Sophomore southpaw Jack Lisowski is firmly in the mix for the No. 3 spot. Matt Salicco, a senior right-hander, is expected to pitch. So is Robby Zega, a sophomore middle infielder and outfielder who is a younger brother of former Middletown South star Johnny Zega. There is also junior Tom Clappsy and sophomore Jack Roesch, who are both right-handed pitchers.

Pitching depth will be even more important with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association changing pitching limits from innings pitched to pitches thrown this season.

Jeremy Joyce, a senior who was an all-Shore Conference A North Division selection last year, should get some innings on the mound and will play second base, third base or shortstop. Jeff Lewandowski, a left fielder last year, will play in center and also may pitch and catch.

Martin can play first or second base or even right field. Ben Porpora, a corner infielder, batted .312 with three home runs last season, while Ryan Ruziecki, who also played in left last year, will play as a middle infielder.

What helps, Spillane said, is that Martin, Porpora, Joyce, Lewandowski and Ruziecki were integral to the Eagles’ 23-6 record last spring and back-to-back 20-win seasons.

“They know how to compete and win,” Spillane said. “I like that we do have talent. We’re young, and the future looks bright.”

But where will they start? Don’t count on a scouting report for that.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but we can prepare ourselves to do it from playing for three years,” Porpora said of the musical chairs approach. “We never know what the lineup’s going to be. We could get off to a slow start but once we blend, I like our chances. I like us being underdogs. It gives us a better chance to blend as a team for when tournament time starts.”
Spillane agrees that this team is a work in progress.

“Pitching is ahead of hitting here just like with everybody else at this time, but there are times we can really hit and then we’re swinging out in front of everything and topping the ball,” Spillane said.

Porpora is ready to do his part.

“I think I’m in the best baseball shape of my life,” Porpora said. “I’m more of a hard contact hitter now and stronger getting it in the gaps. I’m not striking out as much.

“I think we will compete and contend. I definitely think we have more chemistry than we’ve had. If some guys don’t produce, the next guys can step up and perform at a high level. We’ll be a lot better [later] than what we are right now.”

Sophomores Aurelio Licata is a middle infielder and Dylan Walling is a right fielder, and they could both play some innings along with junior outfielders Scott Benigno and Ben Kinsella.

After the opener against Middletown North, Middletown South plays April 5 at home against Wall High School — the team that rallied back to knock the Eagles out of the state tournament in the early rounds last year.

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