Monmouth U. baseball splits weekend series

BY DOUG McKENZIE Correspondent

As the Northeast Conference Baseball Tournament rapidly approaches, the defending championMonmouthUniversityHawks are looking to finish off what has been another championship-caliber season in style.

DAVID BEALES Monmouth University shortstop Kyle Higgins slides into base during his team's 9-5 loss to Mount St. Mary's University on May 2. DAVID BEALES Monmouth University shortstop Kyle Higgins slides into base during his team’s 9-5 loss to Mount St. Mary’s University on May 2. The Hawks entered the season as the teammost people expected to be the class of the NEC field, and they have not disappointed, playing to a 31-12 mark, including a 16-4 conference mark.

Boasting both the conference’s most potent lineup and dependable pitching staff, Monmouth appears poised to earn another regular-season title and enter the postseason tournament as the top seed.

The 2008NEC Baseball Championships will be held May 22-24 at Bernie Robbins Stadium in Atlantic City. The rain date is May 25.

The championship will consist of a fourteam, double-elimination tournament that comprises six or seven games over three days. The top four teams based on the regular season conference winning percentage qualify for the NEC Tournament. The NEC championwill go on to compete atNCAAregionalsMay 30-June 2.

The tournament returns toAtlantic City for the first time in seven years,with Bernie Robbins Stadium playing host to the threeday event. The NEC previously held its postseason event in Atlantic City in 2000 and 2001.

What Monmouth must do between now and the start of the tournament is remain focused on the task at hand. There is no question that Monmouth has been the best team in the NEC this season. Now they must maintain that high level of play over the last few weeks of the regular season, playing against teams that are jockeying for their spots in the NEC tourney.

One such team is Mount St. Mary’s (MSM), who came to West Long Branch over the weekend for a four-game series with the Hawks. MSM currently sits in fourth place in the conference, and needed a strong showing against the Hawks to solidify its standing. Based on the way the Hawks have dominated the NEC this year, a split of the four gameswould go a longway toward helping Mount stake its claim as a legitimate threat in upcoming conference tourney play.

On Friday,MSMgot the fast start it was looking for in handing the Hawks a 9-5 loss – their first loss at home all season. The Hawks’Brad Brach, a senior fromFreehold, had an uncharacteristically shaky outing, giving up five runs on eight hits over six innings. Brach, who is usually unbeatable at home, fell to 5-1 on the year, with a stellar 2.21 earned-run average.

Senior Kyle Higgins, of Green Brook, continued his torrid hitting, going 3-for-4 on the day, with two runs scored.

On Saturday,MU looked to bounce back from the loss, as they once again hosted MSMin a doubleheader but had to settle for the split, winning the first game, 5-2, and losing the second game, 7-3. Nick Pulsonetti’s three-run HR in the bottom of the seventh (his second of the game) won the opener, while Ryan Buch and Kyle Breese combined to hold theMSMoffense in check. Buch was strong, allowed just two runs on four hits, with nine strikeouts over 6.2 innings of work before giving the ball to Breese in the top of the seventh with two runners on. The junior from South Brunswick needed just one pitch to close it out, and thanks to Pulsonetti’s heroics, earned the win.

And itwas certainly Pulsonetti’s showin this one, as the freshman from Old Tappan went 2-for-3 with two home runs and four RBIs, connecting on his team-leading eighth and ninth homers of the season for the Hawks.With the score tied at 2-2 in the bottomof the seventh, Shawn Teters led off the frame with a single through the left side, and with one outMSMrelieverMikeMatta intentionallywalked Paul Bottigliero to face Pulsonetti. That proved to be amistake, because Pulsonetti launched a 1-0 offering to dead center, giving the Hawks the win.

Mount St. Mary’s earned the split on Saturdaywith a 6-1 game-two victory.MSM starter Brett Moore worked all seven innings, allowing three runs on five hits to improve his record to 2-6 on the season, while Monmouth’s Matt Marc-Aurele, who has been stellar all season for the Hawks, worked just two innings forMonmouth, surrendering four runs on four hits, with two strikeouts, to fall to 3-3 on the year. Sophomore Andy McDonnell, of Newton Square, Pa., worked a career-high three frames for Monmouth, allowing two runs on three hits, while freshman Steve Sanguiliano, of Flemington, tossed the final two innings for the Blue and White, allowing one run on one hit, and two walks.

With MSM beating their top two pitchers in the course of two days, itwas very important for Monmouth to win Sunday’s finale and earn a split in the series. Capped by junior Brett Holland’s two-out, infield single in the bottom of the 10th inning, that’s just what Monmouth did, and the Hawks rallied for a 6-5 victory.

In the bottom of the 10th frame, freshman Ryan Terry laid a bunt down the thirdbase line for a single, moved to second on Wall Township junior Chris Collazo’s sacrifice bunt, and scored on Holland’s infield single.

Holland’s drive was headed through the right side, but Mount’s second baseman, Matt Eiden,made a diving stop butwas unable to make a play as Terry came home with the winning run.

Monmouth seniorAndyMeyers gave the home team the early edge with a two-run home run to right field in the first inning before theMount went ahead 3-2 in the top of the fourth. MSM loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the sixth, before ZachHelman laced a run-scoring single through the left side on a 2-2 pitch, giving the Mountaineers a 4-2 edge, while keeping the bags packed. After a strikeout, Eiden dropped down a sacrifice bunt as Kyle Kane was breaking for home, to put the Mount ahead 5-2. The Hawks pulled within 5-3 in the home half of the sixth when Higgins led off with a single. On Higgins’ successful steal attempt of second, a throwing error allowed the senior to move to third and then score when Pulsonetti beat out an infield hit.

Meyers’ second homer of the game, an opposite-field shot on a 3-2 pitch, pulled Monmouth within 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth. Meyers, who worked out of an 0-2 hole, laced the shot to left center. The Hawks continued the rally when freshman TimMcEndy connected on an infield single, Terry doubled down the left-field line, and theMountaineers intentionallywalked Collazo to load the bases with one out. Holland then drew a walk in an eight-pitch at-bat to drive in the tying run at 5-5.Matta escaped without further damage, striking out both pinch hitter Rick Niederhaus and Higgins to end the inning, setting up Holland’s dramatic game-winning hit in the 10th.

Sophomore Brett Brach, of Freehold, worked 5.2 innings, allowing five runs on nine hits, with six strikeouts, a walk and three hit batters. Senior Tim Dexter, of South River, tossed two scoreless innings for the Hawks, while Middletown North grad Justin Esposito earned the win working 2.3 scoreless innings, improving to 2-0 on the year. Meyers’ two homers gave himfour on the season and 23 in his career,moving himinto sole possession of sixth all-time in the category, as the senior led the Hawks’ 12-hit attack. Meyers, who drove in three, now has 179 RBIs, which ranks second all-time at Monmouth. Pulsonetti, Terry and Holland each had two hits as well.

A look at the NEC statistical leaders shows that Monmouth is well represented both at the plate and on themound.Higgins and Pulsonetti are the top two hitters in the NEC at this point, hitting .385 and .367 respectively, while Holland is not far behind in fourth place at .350.Also in the top 10 are Ryan Terry (.341) and Paul Bottigliero (.327), while Andy Meyers is also over the .300 mark, batting at a .307 clip.

Higgins also leads the league with 65 hits and 35 runs scored, while Bottigliero has the NEC’s best on-base percentage (.457), andMeyers is third in RBIs with 33. As a team,MUis hitting .314, well ahead of second-place Central Connecticut State (.285).

As for theHawks’pitching staff, it is also the NEC’s best, pitching to a 3.52 ERA, led by Brad Brach (5-1, 2.21 ERA),Marc-Aurele (3-3, 3.28), Buch (6-1, 2.89), Esposito (1-0, 2.49), Tim Ballard (3-0, 2.52), Brett Brach (3-2, 3.65), Nick Vallillo (2-0, 0.59), and Breese (3-1, 5.91).

Monmouth returns to action on Friday, when the Hawks host Fairleigh Dickinson University in game one of an NEC series. FDU entered the week at 12-33 overall but is in the midst of a three-game winning streak. First pitch Friday is set for 3 p.m.