BLACKWOOD – Through the first 23 games of this season, senior Anthony Masselli had been used in relief just once.
“We used him to finish out the Haddon Heights tournament but other than that he’s been a starter,” Highland head coach DJ Gore said. “You could see today he had his best stuff and he’s one of our leaders. He came in and gave us three innings we needed.”
Masselli got the three-inning save for starter Jake Rappaport and Highland manufactured five runs on five hits to beat Lacey 5-2 in a South Jersey Group 3 semifinal game at Highland. The Tartans (18-6) the second seed in the bracket, will play host to No.4 Deptford – a 6-5 winner over Central on Tuesday - this Friday at Highland in a 4 p.m. start for the South Jersey Group 3 title.
“We’re ready for this,” said Masselli, who struck out four after he entered with one on in the fifth and no outs. “We’ve been looking forward to this since we made it to the final last year.”
“This is such a different team,” Gore said. “We graduated ten seniors last season. We have nine seniors this year, so it’s basically a different team with the same amount of experience. In Group 3, it’s difficult to get back to the final. We did it so it’s very gratifying.
Lacey (21-6) held a 1-0 lead after it batted in the third inning, but the lead felt tenuous at best. The Tartans rattled starter Anthony Elefante in the first with a pair of walks, but ran themselves out of the inning with a questionable, at best, interference call. Even without a hit, Highland pressured Lacey and in particular Elefante into a mistake.
After a leadoff walk, No. 8 hitter Brian Cooey squared for a sacrifice bunt that went to Elefante. The Lacey hurler took his time and a weak throw to first resulted in an error on first baseman Brendan Haggerty.
Gore decided to press his luck and N0. 9 hitter Billy Richards also bunted, this time Elefante pulled the string on his throw due to his first baseman not getting back to the base in time and Richards reached on a throwing error and a run scored to make it 1-1.
“We put the bunts down because we needed a run,” Richards said. “After the first one, the first goal is to move the runners up, but he looked rattled and we forced him to make a play. He didn’t make either play and you have to take advantage of that situation.
“Putting those bunts down forced them to make plays and they weren’t making them.”
Lacey continued to struggle defensively and another error in the field led to two more runs and a 3-1 lead for Highland.
Starter Jake Rappaport lasted until the fifth and left with a 3-2 lead when Masselli stepped in and shut down Lacey the rest of the way.
“I felt good today,” Masselli said. “I know I came in fired up. Falling behind 3-0 to the first hitter isn’t ideal, but I knew he was trying to bunt and worked back for a strikeout. After that I felt pretty good.”
“(His last two starts) he had too much energy,” Gore said. “If it was a coaching decision it was mine. We got so involved with pitch counts and keeping him fresh that he went 15 days without a start. He’s better on normal rest and I think you saw that today.”
As for Friday, Deptford will come in with plenty of momentum and equipped with the knowledge they beat Highland 6-5 earlier this year at Highland.
“That’s a very good team and it will be a great game,” Gore said. “But we’re playing well too and we’re ready to play that game.”
In fact they’ve been ready for 365 days.
Tartans 5, Lions 2
WP: Rappaport. LP: Elafante. 2B: Galante, Masselli, H. HR:: Haggerty.