The start wasn’t exactly what Michael Bolton had in mind, but the two escapes he orchestrated struck at the essence of what makes Freehold Borough’s junior so revered by his teammates and coaching staff.
Twice in the first two innings, the junior left-hander found himself faced with looming peril, forced to work his way out of bases-loaded jams. What came to light under the circumstances was that worst-case scenarios elicit the best from Bolton.
He minimized the damage in each instance while establishing a disturbing trend that haunted Wall throughout. By the time he exited with two outs in the sixth, Bolton had allowed seven hits but, more importantly, stranded 11 baserunners against an imposing lineup not know for squandering opportunities.
“Early on, it felt like it was all falling apart on me,” Bolton said. “I just tried to do the best I could to get myself out of it.”
What Bolton got himself, and eighth-seeded Freehold Borough for that matter, is into the semifinal round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 3 tournament courtesy of a 4-2 quarterfinal victory over top-seeded Wall, No. 11 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, on Friday in Wall Township.
Bolton (3-2), who is more often lauded for his exceptional defensive play at first base, carried some of that glovework over to the mound. After Wall loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the first on two errors and a bunt single by Connor White, it got an RBI single from Jimmy Guiliano but no more.
Bolton showed quick reflexes on a comebacker that triggered a 1-2-3 double play and then got a fly out to end the inning.
“I had to calm down and take deep breaths,” Bolton said of his routine to relax under the tense conditions. “I put a lot of faith in my catcher (Kyle Mogilski). He called a phenomenal game. I had every ounce of trust in him.”
“That was the big part, getting out of the first inning allowing just one run,” Freehold Borough coach Jon Block said. “We’ll take that anytime in under that condition. We settled down after that and played good defense the rest of the game. Michael is such a battler.”
Wall filled the bags again the second, this time with two outs, and Bolton came up with the third by recording one of his three strikeouts.
With the pitcher instilling confidence through his tenacity, Freehold Borough’s offense rewarded him with the lead in the third.
Travis Rudic delivered a two-out single and senior third baseman Anthony Vazzana ensued with a home run to left to put the Colonials in front, 2-1.
“We don’t have too many kids who can just stick the bat out there and drive it over the fence,” Vazzana said. “I got a pitch middle in and took a rip at it.”
Wall tied the game briefly in the fourth when Guiliano delivered his second RBI single but Freehold Borough crafted another long-ball rebuttal.
Matt Holtz lined a single up the middle and Rudic, a senior right fielder, backed it with a line-drive, two-run blast off the scoreboard behind the left-field fence to put the Colonials ahead for good.
“We’re really not a power-hitting team,” said Rudic. “We are more situational hitters. Once in awhile, you need to get that home run and it’s a good thing we got them.”
Bolton retired the side in order in the fifth but sandwiched two walks around a ground out in the sixth. After inducing Mitchell Preston into a screaming lineup to Holtz at shortstop, Bolton was lifted in favor of Cody Reilly, who got the final out in the inning.
Wall mounted one final threat in the bottom of the seventh. Scott Duncan led off with a double. But, a wild pitch by Reilly took a fortuitous bounce off the backstop right back to Mogilski, who fired a strike to Vazzana, who swiped a tag on Duncan trying to advance to third.
Reilly then got a pair of fly outs to close out matters and earn the save.
The win marked the second by Freehold Borough over Wall in tournament play. The Colonials scored a 6-3 decision in the first round of the Monmouth County Tournament. That triumph played a big part in this one.
“Wall is always a good team, but that win on the counties gave us the confidence we needed in this one,” Vazzana said. “Our pitching picked us up, especially in the first inning. If they had gotten more than one run, we would’ve had to climb out of a pretty big hole.”
Guiliano, a senior third baseman, finished 3-for-4 with three singles, senior second baseman Chaz Salvo was 2-for-2 with a pair of doubles and classmate Conor Mulholland tossed two perfect innings of relief for Wall, which graduates its entire everday lineup as well as the bulk of its pitching staff.
Rudic went 2-for-4 while Vazzana ended 2-for-2 with a walk.
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner