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(Photo by Rockland Boulders - Drew Wohl)

(Photo by Rockland Boulders – Drew Wohl)

Heading into the 2017 regular season opener, Rockland Boulders manager Jamie Keefe was not sure what his opening lineup would be. He felt, one through nine, they did not have a lineup that strong and when you look at the numbers on paper the players have to still perform up to their ability and compete.

The players have certainly met and exceeded those expectations, scoring 41 runs in five games. Two years ago, Rockland set a Can-Am League record, tallying 622 runs.

New second baseman, Dylan Tice, is off to a sizzling start going 11 for 21 with one home run and six RBI. He was named Pointstreak Player of the Week. Meanwhile, closer Mayckol Guaipe, was named Pointstreak Pitcher of the Week after registering a save and win.

“I’m still learning these guys and a different feel, look for us and we keep battling along,” Keefe said. “We keep battling along. Pitching is completely different and reshaped and we have some long guys that can come in and start. It’s like Christmas all over again, you wake up early, can’t sleep, get to the ballpark and nervous energy is wonderful.”

Before an energetic and amped up crowd of 4,464 in the season opening game, it was two former Boulders that made a triumphal return. Reigning 2015 Can-Am League and Baseball Independent Player of the Year Joe Maloney provided the pop early, slugging a monstrous 2-run homer off the left field scoreboard in the second inning. With two outs, Jon Smith who last played for the team in 2012, belted a solo blast on to the right field concourse.

Former Rockland player Steve Nyisztor drove in a run in the fourth, slicing the lead to 2-1, but the Boulders answered in the bottom half tying the game on a RBI double by Mike Montville. Returning from a serious and season-ending spleen injury suffered last season, centerfielder Jared McDonald displayed no rust in smacking a bases clearing triple into the left center gap. Designated hitter Cody Regis joined the long ball parade, walloping a shot into the right concourse area.

Selected in a fans vote to start in his 17th season on the mound, Richard Salazar gutted out five innings, allowing two runs on five hits, walking two and striking out four to pick up the win.

“Been awhile for Jon (Smith) and good to have Joe (Maloney) back,” said Keefe. “The electricity in this place tonight was really good and I felt we got plugged in tonight. Cody (Regis) is going to be huge in this lineup. Montville worked hard all winter on some things and turned on a few balls. Salazar giving us five we needed and sets a good example for the guys.”

“It feels good and streak going on Opening Day with four HR’s in three Opening Day games,” said Maloney. “A good off-season and seeing the ball good. Beautiful weather, good fans and crowd tonight.”

“It felt pretty good tonight even though my body is a little rusty,” said Salazar” “I just have to build through that and good to get the first win and set the tone for the team. We have waited a long time for this and had a great defense behind me. 17 seasons and I’m still able to do it and confidence the manager and fans had in me.”

Game 2 of the series switched to Skylands Stadium in Augusta, NJ where Rockland managed to defeat the Miners in 11 innings. Marcus Nidiffer and Dylan Tice each had three hits apiece and two RBI.

Both teams’ played a twin bill on Saturday at Palisades Credit Union Park. In game 1, Markus Solbach made his return in a Boulders uniform after getting signed last season by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

However, Sussex County right fielder Justin Duran greeted Solbach rudely in the second inning crushing the ball over the 35-foot green monster wall in center field. The first time a player that ever achieved the feat. An error by Dylan Tice with the bases loaded allowed two runs to score on the play making it 3-0.

The Boulders responded in the third, sending nine hitters to the plate with Maloney providing the biggest hit belting a two-run double making it 5-3. Regis cranked his second home in three games in the fifth inning. Rockland put the game out of reach in the fifth highlighted by a three-run majestic blast to left center off the bat of Mike Montville.

“Obviously you can tell we’re seeing the ball well pretty good and patience we had to see with some pitches early,” said Keefe. “A smart baseball player (Dylan Tice) and getting a lot out of him and very happy with him. We’re damn lucky to have him on our side. A really good start for Solbach and made pitches when he had to.”

Even with a late start in Game 2, Rockland flexed its muscles led by Tice connecting on a lead off home run into left field grandstands. Tied at 1-1 in the third, Tice ripped a double off the left field wall bringing in Jared McDonald. Jon Smith clubbed his second homer of the season, a three-run shot into the Short Porch area in right field. Joe Maloney got into the home run derby act cracking a three-run drive as well into the left-center bleachers.

Taking the hill for the first time in a Boulders uniform, CJ Riefenhouser tossed five innings surrendering two runs on seven hits while striking out seven, with four of them coming in the first two innings.

“He hasn’t pitched in this league and doesn’t know what to expect,” said Keefe. “To get five innings and two runs we can’t complain and good first start.”

“Skip put together a ridiculous roster and we got guys hitting up and down and easy to hit in a lineup that’s hitting,” said Tice. “You just know the depth of our lineup will eventually produce and I don’t feel we have to do it with one swing.”

“I had a great time and these guys play awesome defense and Alex (Herceg) and I decided to mix up the speeds especially with the breaking ball and change-up,” said Riefenhouser “At the beginning of the game I felt really comfortable.”

It was quick turnaround for both teams’ in the series finale, playing 14 hours after the conclusion of the doubleheader. A pitcher’s duel ensued between Boulders starter Bo Budkevics and Miners starter Ari Kaufman. Sussex County jumped to a 1-0 lead in the second inning on a RBI single by Rubi Silva.

Stymied by Kaufman for the first six innings, Rockland broke through in the seventh on a two-run single by James Roberts. Aggressive on the base paths, Roberts swiped both second and third. Jared McDonald followed with a fly ball to right field allowing Roberts to tag up and score.

However, the lead would not last long as another former Boulder Mike Schwartz roped a two-run double in the eighth tying up the game at 3-3. Jason Byers would enter the game and proceeded to uncork a wild pitch allowing Schwartz to come into score from third.

The back and forth contest continued in the bottom frame with Rockland loading up the bases. Roberts collected his third RBI of the game by getting plunked on the shoulder forcing in a run nodding the game at 4-4.

Mayckol Guaipe entered the game in the ninth and with a runner on third fanned Justin Trapp. In the bottom of the ninth, Tice, already 10 for 20 on the season, laced a double into the right center gap. Tice would move over to third on a sac bunt by Mike Fransoso. Next stepped up Marcus Nidiffer who hit a ground ball deep in the hole at short allowing Tice to score the game-winning run.

“Honestly as good as I have seen Bo in control of everything from the first pitch and pain free,” said Keefe. “Last year he was hurting and this year mechanics clean as ever. We just played five games in four days and three games in 24 hours. A lot of baseball and we came out with three wins and not going to complain.”

“We played as a team and these guys coming in not taking anything for granted and working every day, at bat and what you need,” said Nidiffer. “It’s a long season but you need guys who will give it their all and doing that.”

After an off day on Monday, the Boulders travel up to Canada facing Trois-Rivieres in a three-game set before returning to Palisades Credit Union Park on Friday against the Quebec Capitales.

“You blink you eyes and we will be home right away,” said Keefe. “Hopefully we go up there and game one is huge and chance to go out and get the series in game two. We’re going to go up there and play as hard as we have been playing.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Since July of 2014 Sunil Sunder Raj has been with In The Zone. Sunil has experience covering minor league baseball, high school and college sports. A beat writer for the Rockland Boulders for six years, Ramapo College men’s basketball for four years, NJIT men’s basketball and Seton Hall women’s basketball. Now focusing on feature articles about athletes, coaches and sports media professionals. A graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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