After back-to-back years of devastating losses in the CHSAA Class AA best-of-three third round qualifying series, Moore Catholic was hell bent on avoiding that situation altogether this season.
The only way to do that was to win the Staten Island division title and earn an automatic bid into the double-elimination tournament.
The Mavericks did just that Wednesday afternoon, beating St. Joseph by the Sea, 2-1, at the Richmond County Youth Complex in Travis. It was Moore’s second win over the Vikings in three days, beating Sea 5-3 in Huguenot Monday.
Moore (12-1), which wraps up the regular season Thursday against Monsignor Farrell, clinched its first Staten Island crown since 2008.
“What we’ve been fighting for all year was not to play that two-out-of-three that we’ve been so weak in the last two years,” center fielder Justin Ortiz said. “I’m so happy we’re past it and we’re right into the final eight.”
Ortiz had a red-hot preseason under the Florida sun and started the season leading off for the Mavericks. But his struggles at the plate pushed him all the way down the order to the No. 9 spot. His attitude and leadership, though, was unwavering.
“He works harder than anybody else in the cages every day,” Moore coach Nick Doscher said.
That work paid off in a big way in the fifth inning Wednesday. Sea ace Brian Russell, who drew scouts from St. John’s, Manhattan and the University of Rhode Island, issued a two-out walk to Bobby Drake and pinch runner Charlie Rollo stole second base.
Ortiz got ahead of the hard-throwing Russell and took his 3-1 pitch up the middle for an RBI single, breaking the tense scoreless tie.
“He’s struggled, but he’s got leadership, that football mentality and he battles every at-bat,” Doscher said. “That was the biggest hit of the year, definitely for him.”
Russell walked Matt Diorio and Chris Goetz followed with an RBI single to left to give Moore a 2-0 lead.
Russell, who consistently threw between 85-87 mph, gave up two earned runs on four hits, striking out three with three walks that proved costly. Ortiz wasn’t intimidated by one of the top pitchers in the city.
“They’re blowing him up to be this big thing, but he’s just another 17-year-old kid,” Ortiz said. “He puts his pants on the same way we do.”
So does John Baggs, who Doscher charged with getting Moore’s biggest win of the season. While he debated internally about possibly going with Anthony LoBello or even Chris Wolf, who picked up the 1 1/3-inning save, Doscher ultimately said he had to go with Baggs.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t start John and he stepped up big,” he said. “He battled all day. That lineup is not an easy lineup.”
The senior left-hander didn’t have the usual giddyup on his fastball, but his changeup was superb. Baggs, who was on the losing end of a 7-1 decision in the first meeting between the two teams, allowed one run on five hits, striking out three with three walks in 5 1/3 innings.
“I just wanted to get this win, especially since it’s for the Island,” Baggs said.
Baggs tired in the sixth, giving up a one-out double to right by Angelo Navetta and an RBI single to left-center by Joe Santigale. After getting Nick Gonchar to fly out to center, Baggs walked Lou Mandia and Doscher pulled him in favor of Wolf, an off-speed specialist.
Wolf got Russell to pop out to third to end the inning and then induced back-to-back groundouts to the hot corner to open the seventh. Frank Sconzo followed with a popup in foul territory behind third base, but Dave Murray made a spectacular diving catch to end the game and ignite a pile-on at the mound, a celebration three years in the making.
“This is just huge,” Baggs said. “We’ve worked hard all season for this.”
Moore’s journey isn’t over yet. Doscher said he wants to make sure to win the opening game of the seeding tournament to avoid a possible No. 4 seed, which could yield a fourth meeting with St. Joseph by the Sea (10-3) in the tournament. He could welcome back Matt Kostalos, who suffered a torn ACL in the preseason.
That the Mavericks were able to win the Island division title even without their projected ace is one reason why Doscher was beaming after the game.
“I’ve coached a long time, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder,” Doscher said. “These kids amaze me at times.”
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