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After splitting the last six games and  seeing the Can-Am League standings tighten up, the schedule did not get any easier for the Rockland Boulders with the start of a three-game  International Series against the Dominican Republic at Palisades Credit Union Park.

“Our guys have to realize the crowd they are playing in front of, call it a exhibition season for us, it’s our record and we have to get the work done and realize what we need to do,” explained Boulder manager Jamie Keefe. “Those guys are not going to lay down for you and will have a good time being close to New York City and obviously are going to have as many fans if not more than us while they are here.”

In game one of the series, Rockland found themselves in a familiar spot, trailing in the first inning. The Boulders wasted no time responding in the bottom half of the frame tagging Dominican Republic starter Robinson Lopez for seven runs and did not even make it out of the inning. Jon Smith paced the offense with four RBI while Dylan Tice drove in a pair of runs.

Having surrendered four runs in the first two innings, starter Justin Topa recovered tossing four shutout innings to remain undefeated at 5-0. Despite the bullpen yielding five runs and two home runs in three innings of work on the mound, Rockland prevailed in a slugfest 14-9 and lasted nearly four hours.

“Their starter struggled and had good numbers coming in and struggled in the first and we were able to jump back on him,” Keefe said. “These guys (Dominican Republic) never laid down and continued to swing the bats and put the ball in play. We certainly did not pitch our bets game but got through it at 14-9 and will take the W.”

“Justin (Topa) has pitched really well up to this date and the guy has been really good for us and lucky to have him and very hard worker. Nice to get everybody back in there and to see Marcus (Nidiffer) back out there and big thing for us as he will get his timing back next couple of days.”

“The atmosphere was awesome and louder in the ninth than first inning and Dominican/Latin fans love their baseball and on their feet entire game and nobody sat down on their side.”

Game two of the series featured a packed house of nearly 5,800 fans and déjà vu set in the first inning as the Boulders fell into a 3-0 hole. Stymied by Dominican Republic starter Felix Lacen through the first three innings, it just took one swing to change the complexity of the game as rookie catcher Alex Herceg blasted a go-ahead grand slam home run. Cody Regis plated two additional runs. Starter Markus Solbach cruised by hurling six shutout innings including seven strikeouts and tying Justin Topa for the team lead in wins with five.

“Swinging the ball well through my preparation and give credit to Jamie (Keefe) for settling me down,” said Alex Herceg. “I got an inside pitch to drive and did not miss. It’s ridiculous one through nine with this lineup and potential for the ball to leave the ballpark and stadium. It makes the game a lot of fun and put up a lot of runs. No matter what the game is we’re never out of the game and always a chance to come back. Definitely a task to stay healthy and get ready every day and prepared myself in the off-season.”

“A chance every day out starters can go seven and hand it off to our bullpen. We have power arms and good guys with great stuff and close the door when we need it. The list goes on and on and a good problem to have with too many arms and potential to throw inning after inning of shutout baseball.”

“They were really sitting us down and had made some good plays and we needed to see some pitched and lengthen this kid out,” said Keefe. “Alex (Herceg) was in a position and yelling for his pitch and guy was struggling to throw strikes and threw a pitch that Alex didn’t miss and absolutely tattooed it and a nice shot to left and at bottom of the scoreboard.”

“They still continued to compete and Alex and Markus (Solbach) worked really well together tonight and he pitched out of a couple of jams. After first inning Solbach really settled in and is throwing the ball well and consistently throwing strikes with that fastball. A little bit difficult playing Dominican team because they are so aggressive and when they see a fastball hit it. He changed it up using his off-speed early and fastball late.”

Rockland welcomed back a familiar face and pitcher in Jon Velasquez who pitched for the organization back in 2011-12. In one inning on the mound Velasquez allowed no runs and hits while walking one. Ethan Elias finished it off in the ninth as the Boulders won 7-3.

“Very good numbers while he was here and pitched as high as Double and Triple A two years ago and 22 games with the Mets.” Keefe said. “He never got a shot and continued to pitch and threw in Sugarland last year and Winter League last couple of years and had success.”

On Father’s Day Rockland found themselves in the unusual spot of being the road team in their home ballpark that did not present an issue as the Boulders turned the tables on the Dominican Republic courtesy of the long ball. Joe Maloney got it started in the second inning slugging a monstrous grand slam on offering from Adrian Grullon into the right-center field bleachers. Marcus Nidffer stepped up to the plate next and crushed a solo missile onto the concourse in left field making it 6-0.

The Boulders kept on pouring it on with the Dominican Republic having to use seven relievers out of their bullpen. Maloney was not done displaying his firepower on the day smashing his second round tripper of the day a three-run shot in the fifth inning and 11th homer of the season into the same area in left field where Nidiffer’s ball landed in the second inning.

Meanwhile starter C.J. Riefenhouser weaved around a couple of jams tossed five innings allowing one run on six hits while walking three and fanning three to record his third win of the year. After Riefenhouser departed, Thomas Lawrence entered the game posting four innings on the hill. Despite surrendering two early runs, Lawrence shut the door rest of the way picking up his first save of the season.

“Feeling good lately at the plate, good at bats, laying off some tough pitches and finally got some good pitches to hit today and put some good swings on it,” said Joe Maloney. “These past two weeks we have been really swinging the ball well and just keep it going.”

“A big day for Joe and Riefenhouser who threw the ball really well and got a couple of pop ups, ground out and strikeouts,” Keefe said. “He (CJ Riefenhouser) knows how to pitch and not rely on off-speed and did what he had to do. Tommy (Lawrence) came in and threw strikes and got us through this one.”

Before coming back to Palisades Credit Union Park for a seven game home stand, the Boulders face off against the New Jersey Jackals at Yogi Berra Stadium. Currently Rockland (22-8) holds a 3 ½ game lead over New Jersey (18-11) in the Can-Am League standing. Last weekend the teams’ split a four-game series.

“We have to lock in and go over to a place that is never easy to play and go in with our heads high and be ready to go and take 2 out of 3,” said Keefe.

“We’re going up against a tough hitting team in New Jersey,” said Joe Maloney. “We’re not chasing pitches and working our pitches and putting good swings on them and name of the game. We have to come out and not relax with these guys and at anytime they can put up as many runs as we can.”

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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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