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BAYVILLE -- From the first pitch of an anticipated showdown with Central Regional ace Cam Leiter, Jackson Memorial senior left-hander Zach Crotchfelt took the game into his hands.

For the final three outs, however, he needed a teammate to pick him up on the mound and another to pick the team up in the field for the Jaguars to secure their biggest win of the season in the Shore Conference Class A South division race.

Crotchfelt struck out 13 in six-plus innings and blasted a solo home run off Leiter in the second inning to give Jackson Memorial enough fuel to take down Central, 4-3, at Al Leiter Field Monday night and move into sole possession of first place in the Class A South standings.

"Awesome atmosphere," Crotchfelt said of Monday night's festivities at the Berkeley Little League Complex. "We love playing these guys because they are such competitors. We look at them as our rivals now: they are one of the better teams in this area, so to come here and get the win is motivating for our team."

"He wanted this game more than ever," Jackson Memorial coach Pat George said. "He pitched the game of his life for us and we backed him up offensively and defensively. You couldn't ask for a better team effort tonight."

Jackson Memorial senior Zach Crotchfelt. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Jackson Memorial senior Zach Crotchfelt. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
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The Crotchfelt-Leiter matchup lasted four innings, with the Jaguars driving Leiter's pitch count to 100 in their first four trips to the plate and tagging the University of Central Florida with four runs -- two of them earned.

Crotchfelt opened the scoring with a bang, slamming a 3-2 fastball from Leiter over the centerfield fence for a solo home run and a 1-0 Jackson Memorial lead in the top of the second inning.

"My mindset up there was just to hunt for a fastball," Crotchfelt said. "He's got a dominant fastball, but his secondary pitches are filth. I'm an alright hitter, I have a lot to work on, but I can hit a fastball, so that was the approach we talked about as a team. He throws hard, so it's a matter of putting the bat on the ball and letting him supply the power."

The Jaguars saddled Leiter with traffic and deep counts throughout the game and were aided by three fielder errors by the Golden Eagles infield in the first four innings. The 6-foot-4 right-hander escaped trouble in the first and third innings and further damage in the second following Crotchfelt's homer, but junior shortstop Charlie Meglio got to Leiter for a two-out, two-run single through the middle to extend Jackson Memorial's lead to 3-0.

"We know that he is one of the most talented kids we're going to see all year," Crotchfelt said of Leiter. "The best way to win this game was to run his pitch count up, jump on him early and let the count build up as much as we could."

In the half-inning prior to Meglio's RBI single, Central nearly tied the game when sophomore catcher Cristian Soto singled to right field with sophomore Brayden Lowden on second base. Central coach Jerry Frulio gave Lowden the green light to try and score, but Jackson Memorial Tommy Kendrick fired a strike to Jackson Memorial catcher Aidan O'Donnell in the air and the junior backstop applied the tag for the final out of the third.

"He is one of the best pure athletes I have seen in high-school baseball," George said of Kendrick. "He covers everything in the outfield, his arm is second-to-none. In the leadoff spot, he is always getting on base and he drives the ball to the gap, he bunts. He is the best athlete we have on this team right now and he showcases it every day."

Central finally broke through on Crotchfelt in the bottom of the fourth, with senior first baseman Shane Sajewicz ripping a double to the right-centerfield gap to lead off the rally. Sajewicz then stole third base with a cagey decision, breaking for the base on a back-pick attempt from Soto and getting in ahead of the throw.

Senior Anthony Musso made Sajewicz's hustle pay off with a one-out, RBI infield single that cut Jackson Memorial's lead to 3-1.

With Leiter out of the game in the top of the fifth, Jackson Memorial tacked on a run, with Crotchfelt again in the middle of the rally. O'Donnell singled to left with one out and Crotchfelt scalded a double into the rightfield corner. Musso quickly retrieved the ball and fired it into second base, where junior shortstop Dom Masino took the throw. George sent courtesy runner Brady Wendell to the plate looking for a fourth run, but Masino was ready and threw the ball to Soto in plenty of time to cut off the potential run.

Jackson Memorial got the much-needed insurance run anyway, with senior Andrew Patire coming through with a pinch-hit, RBI single to left that scored Crotchfelt from second.

In the bottom of the sixth, it was again Sajewicz who kicked off a Central rally, this time smacking a 0-2 fastball past Crotchfelt and through the middle for a leadoff single. Leiter then worked the second of his two walks in the game before Crotchfelt responded with a strikeout for the first out.

A passed ball set Central up with runners on second and third and junior Chase Pierce came through with a huge two-run single through the middle to score both Sajewicz and Leiter and cut the Jaguars lead to 4-3. Crotchfelt struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning with 105 pitches.

After senior Dan Ashton limited Jackson Memorial to one run in two innings of relief, classmate Noah Cullen delivered a one-two-three inning exactly when Central needed it in the top of the seventh, setting the Golden Eagles up with a chance to tie or win the game in the bottom of the inning.

Central senior Cam Leiter. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Central senior Cam Leiter. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
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With only five pitches to throw before hitting the NJSIAA pitch-count threshold, Crotchfelt fell behind Lowden leading off the seventh and walked him on seven pitches (NJSIAA rules stipulate pitchers may finish facing the hitter if they hit the 110-pitch limit mid-at-bat). George then turned to junior left-hander Andy Osmond to face the top of the Central order and Osmond got off to a good start by notching a strikeout for out No. 1.

"Andy has been wanting a big opportunity like this and the kid showcased everything that he had," George said. "He went in, nothing bothered him and it was truly and impressive performance. He has been in big spots but this was the biggest and he performed to the level he is capable of."

Soto then stepped up and smacked his second single of the game into right field. For the second time, Lowden tried to take an extra base and for the second time, Kendrick made him pay. The senior rightfielder unleashed another bullet from his position, this time to third baseman J.R. Osmond to tag out Lowden at third for the second out of the inning.

"He's got a cannon, man," Crotchfelt said of Kendrick. "He throws the ball in (infield-outfield warm-ups) and it just soars. We have been waiting for that one where he gets to throw somebody out and he got two tonight."

Andy Osmond then struck out Sajewicz to end the game and put the Jaguars back in first place all by themselves.

Monday's matchup between two of the best pitchers in the Shore Conference ended long hiatuses for both. Crotchfelt had not pitched since beating Toms River North on April 14 and Leiter had not started a game since a 3-0 Central loss to St. Augustine on April 9. Leiter last pitched on Thursday, when he pitched an inning of relief in a win over Toms River East.

"It has been a week-and-a-half mostly because of the beautiful New Jersey weather," Crotchfelt said. "My thing was to just stay on pace, throw with our guys last week to stay in a groove and just being prepared for tonight to put my team in the best spot possible to win this game."

In four starts this season, Crotchfelt is 3-1 with a 0.62 ERA and 49 strikeouts against 11 walks in 22 2/3 innings. The two earned runs allowed on Monday were the first two earned runs the 6-5 left-hander has given up this season, although he did give up four unearned runs in a loss to Bishop Eustace in his first start of the season.

In Crotchfelt's previous two starts, he pitched a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts against Toms River East and struck out 16 in a three-hit shutout win over Toms River North.

"Central is an aggressive team," George said. "Jerry does a good job with them. They had a good approach against Zach and once they got on the base paths, they were a little chaotic. They had us shaking a little bit."

Both of Jackson Memorial's two divisional losses this season came in its opponents' final at-bat, with Southern rallying to beat Jackson Memorial, 6-4, in Jackson and Toms River North winning in the bottom of the seventh last week.

"In a few of our losses, especially that Toms River North loss, we felt like we had a lot of barrels at the plate that just didn't go our way, so we just said, 'Let's not change our approach,'" Crotchfelt said. "We see the results, but let's stick with the plan."

The two teams will meet again on Wednesday, with Jackson Memorial trying to gain additional distance between itself and Central with just four divisional games remaining for each after Wednesday.

Box Score

Jackson Memorial 4, Central 3

1234567RHE
Jackson Mem (7-5, 7-2)0102100480
Central (7-4, 6-4)0001020363

Pitching

Jackson MemorialIPHRERBBSOPC
Zach Crotchfelt (W, 3-1)6532613112
Andy Osmond (SV, 1)11000217
CentralIPHRERBBSOPC
Cam Leiter (L, 1-2)433138100

Top Hitters

Jackson MemorialGame Stats
Zach Crotchfelt2-4, 2B, HR, 2 R, RBI
Charlie Meglio2-4, 2 RBI
Andrew Patire1-2, RBI
Mattt Koblos1-4, R
Tommy Kendrick0-1, 2 BB, HBP
CentralGame Stats
Shane Sajewicz2-4, 2B, 2 R
Cristian Soto2-4
Chase Pierce1-3, 2 RBI
Anthony Musso1-4, RBI
Cam Leiter0-1, 2 BB, R