DEPTFORD – No one ever wants to see a game hinge on the call of an official.
But in this instance, the decision was clear and concise.
No one was in a better place Tuesday to see it unfold than the third-base umpire.
Down one run in the top of the seventh inning, Central Regional coach Mike Casale sent his runner from third on a fly ball to right field. Turns out he sent him just a tad bit too early.
Called safe at the plate, Deptford appealed the play to the umpire who was just a few feet away. After a brief discussion, the runner was ruled out for leaving the bag too early and the Spartans escaped with a 6-5 victory and a berth into the South Jersey Group 3 final.
“We knew with a shallow fly ball and our right fielder rolling in on it that kid was going to try to get every single inch that he could as far as getting a good jump,” Deptford coach Anthony Leone said. “We thought he left early. … We just wanted the third-base guy, who’s on the base, to make the call because he has the best angle.
“We were fortunate, but we feel he made the right call.”
Winners in 11 of its last 13 games, fourth-seeded Deptford (17-6) will play the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between No. 3 Lacey and No. 2 Highland for the sectional title Friday. The Spartans will hit the road no matter who they face.
“We’re trying to get a ring,” said junior second baseman Jake Field. “We take it one game at a time, and now we’re at the last one.”
The Spartans never trailed Tuesday, with Field’s two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth inning proving to be the difference. The first homer of his high school career landed in the tree behind the fence in left field, giving the hosts a 6-2 lead at the time.
“I hit the ball hard,” said Field, who finished 2-for-3 with two runs scored. “I was just trying to hit a line drive, but I saw that it had back spin and knew it was going out.
“I was sitting on a hanger and he hung one pretty bad.”
With Mike Paciocco in scoring position, Deptford was simply looking to manufacture a run.
“Jake has been fantastic for us all year long, so if we could get a runner into scoring position for Jake we knew he would step up and do the job,” Leone said. “We weren’t expecting a home run. … Fortunately, he got a curveball that stayed up in the zone and he got it all. That’s one of the hardest balls he’s hit all season.
“That’s Jake in a clutch moment. When we need him to step up … He’s just not afraid of the moment and he wants to help these seniors continue on. We have confidence when he’s at the plate.”
The shot loomed large as Central (12-11) cut its deficit to 6-4 with two runs in the top of the fifth. The Golden Eagles then made it a 6-5 game in the seventh on an RBI double by Tyler Aires.
With momentum clearly with the visitors, and runners on second and third, R.J. Grace induced a fly ball to right field. What appeared initially to be a sacrifice fly would ultimately be the game’s final play.
“It was crazy. I had no idea what was going on,” Field said.
Jalen Merchant picked up the win, going six innings and allowing four runs on seven hits. Grace earned the save, although it proved to be a tough one.
All three of Deptford’s playoff wins have been by a single run. They beat Absegami 6-5 and topped Delsea 7-6.
But at this time of year, the final score is irrelevant. It’s all about getting the win.
“These guys are battle-tested and we’ve had the luxury of playing in playoff atmospheres during the course of the season, the luxury of playing very close games,” Leone said. “We haven’t always found a way to come out on top, but we’ve found a way at the end of the year to win. They’re fighters. They will scratch and claw, no matter if we’re up two or down two.
“We knew it was going to be a dog fight. Most of our games have been that way. We had to compete from the first pitch to the last. They found a way.”
Said Field: “We feed off tough situations, battle everything. … Just survive and advance.”
Deptford 6, Central Regional 5
Golden Eagles 000 – 220 – 1 – 5-9-4
Spartans 301 – 200 – x – 6-6-1
WP: Jalen Merchant. LP: Jared Morris. S: R.J. Grace. 2B: Mike Bickford, Tyler Aires, CR. HR: Jake Field, D.