By Dominick Savino | North Jersey Eagles
Last weekend, North Jersey began a pivotal homestand in which it will play three doubleheaders and an additional rivalry game in less than a week.
With only 10 hurlers on the roster, the gauntlet will test the team's pitching staff as the Eagles look to string together victories and position themselves for a deep postseason run.
Fortunately for North Jersey, however, Justin Valdespina and Austin Solecitto decided to start that stretch of games by rewarding the bullpen with a day off.
The two starting pitchers brought their A-game to Overpeck Park on Saturday, each tossing a 3-hit shutout as they guided North Jersey to 7-0 and 5-0 victories against Lehigh Valley.
From the start of Game 1, it was clear that Valdespina's start would be his best yet. The Southern New Hampshire product retired the first 10 hitters he faced, including three via strikeouts, before allowing a one-out single in the 4th inning to Steven Cohen.
By then, though, the Eagles' bats had already gone to work against Catz starter David Moyer, pounding out three runs in the 2nd inning and notching two extra tallies in the 3rd to put the game out of reach.
With men on the corners and two outs in the 2nd, Matthew Stalter chopped an infield grounder to Cohen, but the Catz shortstop fired his throw into right field to allow Paul Rufo to score the first run of the ballgame. After Tolly Filotei followed with a bunt single to load the bases, Andrew Murnane plated Stalter and Zach Tondi on a slow-rolling double that snuck under the glove of Lehigh Valley first baseman Nick Todero.
Then, in the 3rd inning, it was more small-ball baseball that brought home two insurance runs for North Jersey.
Shane Woelfel singled to right, advanced to second on a fielder's choice, reached third on a wild pitch, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Luis Amaro to add the first run of that half-inning. One batter later, Paul Rufo scraped together a run by reaching first on another error by Cohen, stealing second, and scoring on an RBI single from Tondi.
Rufo completed his remarkable day at the plate in the 5th inning, launching a 2-run dinger over the left-field fence for the team's sixth and seventh runs of the game and second homerun of the season.
The scoring outburst would be more than plenty for Valdespina, who was one pitch ahead of the Catz's hitters for all seven innings. The Garfield, New Jersey native punctuated his stellar start with his season-high 7th strikeout, a 3-pitch punch-out of Joseph Coyle to end the first game.
30 minutes later, Austin Solecitto picked up where Valdespina left off, ringing up six K's in the first three innings to keep the Catz's bats silent.
Like in Game 1, the Eagles' lineup provided plenty of run support for their starter in Game 2.
North Jersey struck for a run in the 1st inning, as Andrew Murnane nearly mirrored Shane Woelfel's solo scoring effort from the first game to make the score 1-0. Leading off for the third straight game, the UPenn sophomore drew a walk, stole second, moved to third on a sacrifice fly, and sprinted home on a wild pitch.
The Eagles then bolstered their lead in the 3rd inning by piecing together its second three-run inning of the day.
With men on the corners and one out, Ryan Rivera dropped a suicide squeeze bunt squarely in between the mound and the plate. Catz starter Ben Bortz flipped home to catcher Will Anderson, but Tolly Filotei safely slide under the tag for the Eagles' second run of Game 2. Later in the inning, Matthew Krupa smacked a slump-busting, 2-RBI single into right-center field to double the score and bring across Woelfel and Rivera.
Murnane crossed the plate once more in the bottom of the 4th, benefitting from Woelfel's RBI groundout to push the scoring to 5-0.
In the meantime, Solecitto continued to shine in his first start with North Jersey, dancing around a two-on, one-out jam in the top of the 4th by inducing two infield pop outs to end the threat.
By the time umpires ended Game 2 after four and a half innings due to rain, the Rice University southpaw had retired five of the final six Catz batsmen sent to the plate and recorded seven strikeouts in an impressive ACBL debut.
North Jersey will continue its home stand on Tuesday, June 30 as the Eagles host the Jersey Pilots at Overpeck Park in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. First pitch will be at 7:00pm, and the pregame.