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(Photo by Drew Wohl)

(Photo by Drew Wohl)

Mired in a season-high four-game losing skid, the Rockland Boulders looked to right the ship taking on the Sussex County Miners in a four-game series with three of the games at Skylands Stadium in Augusta, New Jersey. Rockland had taken six out of seven from the Miners so far this season.

In game one, Boulders starter Justin Topa and Sussex County starter Gianni Zayas matched each other pitch for pitch through six innings. Topa clicked on all cylinders, retiring eight straight at one point and striking out four. Meanwhile, Zayas limited Rockland to two hits, both by Jon Smith.

The complexion of the game would change in the seventh starting with Joe Maloney leading off with a single, the first hit that Zayas had allowed since the fourth inning. After Mike Montville reached on a fielder’s choice putting runners on the corners with one out, Mike Fransoso chopped a grounder to first bringing in Maloney from third. With Zayas departing the game, Rockland went to work on Andrew Brocket as Jared McDonald and Dylan delivered clutch two-out two run singles.

Topa (8-1) left after six shutout innings allowing just three hits, while whiffing seven and walking two. The bullpen combination of Thomas Lawrence, Michael O’Neal and Ethan Elias tossed three spotless innings to wrap up the game.

“Look, it was going to take us to get a bunt down or something different,” said Manager Jamie Keefe. “Topa went out and threw a gem for us and we made some great defensive plays. A dominant performance by him and a stopper for us and exactly where is throwing the ball as an elite and well-deserved All-Star and happy for him. Montville got a bunt down and everyone took a deep breathe. The bullpen was very good and threw the ball well.”

The series returned to Palisades Credit Union Park and turned into a home run derby contest. Down 1-0 in the second, Joe Maloney quickly tied it up launching his 18th home run that is a career high in a Boulders uniform into the Short Porch area in right field.

Miners first baseman Chase McDonald proved to be a thorn in Rockland starter Bo Budkevics going deep twice and both were go-ahead blasts. Starting in the fourth belting a solo shot into the left field bleachers and socking a two-run missile that landed just underneath the scoreboard making it 4-2 in the fifth.

Not to be undone Boulders All-Star second baseman Dylan Tice provided some pop leading off the fourth clubbing his fourth round tripper of the season. The ball kept flying out of the ballpark on this night when Sussex County catch JJ Fernandez mashed a two-run moonshot on to the concourse in right field in the sixth.

Once again Rockland managed to force a starter out of the game and began to chip away at the lead. Down 6-3 in the seventh, the Boulders capitalized on the wildness of Miners relief pitcher El Hajj Muhammad who at one point threw 11 balls in a row and inability to find the strike zone. Alex Herceg and Jared McDonald both drew bases loaded closing the gap to 6-5. Tice would tie the game and driving in his second run of the game with a sac fly to center.

The see-saw affair continued into the eighth as Adron Chambers put the Miners back in front with an RBI single. Back came Rockland in the bottom of the frame with Jon Smith hammering the third Boulders home run of the night and sixth overall into the right-center bleachers. Looking to take the lead for the first time, Rockland loaded up the bases with one out, but Sussex County reliever Mark McCoy struck out Jared McDonald and Dylan Tice to end the inning.

In the ninth, Jon Smith reached on a two-out single and took third on a wild pitch uncorked by McCoy. Mike Montville capped off the comeback dumping a single into shallow left field as Smith beat the throw from Chambers sliding in safely at home.

“I think why we had success this year is every time we go down we have not really got blown out and scratch back a little bit and a testament to the guys in the clubhouse,” Montville said. “Guys trust each other so everyone feels like they have to do everything. I’m just trying to swing at better pitcher and making sure I’m looking for a certain pitch and on time.”

“Through six we had two base runners on and both home runs,” Keefe said. “We just had to stick with it and get to the bullpen. The guys showed a lot of patience and has not happened in a long time and we have been pressing the issue. Battled all night and small things add up. A lot of good things come out of this and nice to get 12 hits and that was huge and not had a in awhile.”

With games three and four switching back to Skylands Stadium, former Miner Ari Kaufman got the start in game three. After a rough Rockland debut against New Jersey where he allowed a run on two hits but walked five in 2 2/3 innings, Kaufman looked sharp on the hill in six innings yielding three runs on seven hits while walking just one and striking out four. However, Sussex County starter Kody Kerski stymied the Boulders spinning six shutout innings permitting just three hits while fanning eight and walking one.

“Ari was really good and threw the ball well,” said Keefe. “We had our chances and didn’t do the small things. We got down two bunts but not the third and 50 games in going to start biting us. We had the tying run on at first base in the last at bat but Arribas misses a home run by two or three feet.”

Pitcher’s duels continued to be the common theme in the rubber match of the series. Rockland starter Markus Solbach and Michael Tamburino threw nothing but strikes for seven innings. Solbach mowing down six through the first two innings and ending up with a career high nine in a Boulders uniform. Tamburino measured up to the task retiring seven in a row at one point and fanning eight.

In the fifth, Rockland caught a break as Jared McDonald ripped a ground ball off McDonald at first base and down the right field line as Aaron Wilson motored around the bases from first plating the first run of the game. McDonald provided some insurance in the ninth driving in his second run of the game on a ground out.

Two outs away from taking three out of four in the series, closer Jon Velasquez could not hold the lead as Jay Baum unleashed a two-run bomb over the left field wall. The Boulders overcame the shock of heading into extras quickly as Cody Regis and Joe Maloney belted singles and advanced to second and third on a sac bunt by Jon Smith.

Mike Fransoso clubbed a two-run single into right field followed by newcomer Daniel Arribas drilling a two-run single into left field. Velasquez put the finishing touches on the victory starting a game-ending double play picking up his first win of the season.

“Solbach was really good and dominated from pitch one and gave us an opportunity to win,” Keefe said. “Arribas has caught very well the last two games for us and no doubt he is going to be able to catch and that bat is going to play out well in this league.”

Rockland(35-15) enters a critical stretch this week with a six-game home stand at Palisades Credit Union Park. First, welcoming in the second place Quebec Capitales(32-18) that are three games back and New Jersey Jackals(30-20) five games behind.

“If we can take 2 out 3 in both series will be huge for us,” said Keefe. “We’re swinging the bats a little bit better and starters have been huge.”

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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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