Keansburg escapes with win at South River

SOUTH RIVER Arkeyel Brown scored a pair of rushing touchdowns, but made his biggest play of the day on defense, stripping South River’s Mario Nigro of the ball at the goal line and recovering it in the end zone to preserve an 18-13 victory for the Keansburg High School football team on Saturday afternoon.

South River (0-4) got the football with 3:02 left after Ian Terry put the Titans in front by five and drove it down to the 17 of Keansburg. Nigro, who threw for eight yards, caught an 8-yard pass and ran for 36 yards on the drive, appeared to be on his way into the end zone for the winning score, but Brown tracked him down from behind and stripped the senior of the ball, giving the Titans (1-3) their first win of the season.

“I saw him going to the right and I saw him break one tackle, so I figured he was already on his way down and I just tried to rip it away from him,” Brown said. “That was an amazing feeling to recover the ball and get this win.”

Brown had scored Keansburg’s first two touchdowns of the game, racing 71 yards up the middle late in the first quarter and 27 yards with 1:35 left in the third stanza on his way to finishing with a game-high 155 yards on 21 carries.

But after Terry’s touchdown put the visitors in front, Keansburg head coach John Bird thought he might have given South River too much time.

“I was a little worried, not in our guys, but that South River had the ball with so much time. We were hoping to give them the ball back with very little left,” Bird said. “But at the end of the day, my guys worked harder than they have all season this week. It took a little bit of time for them to gel with me taking over, but this is positive step. They were ready for the situation and it proved itself today.”

The Titans were put to the test by South River on a day where the field conditions deteriorated and the weather worsened as the game went on.

“We went away from our offense just a little bit,” Bird said in regards to the weather affecting his team. “That last touchdown drive, we just had Arkeyel and Ian run the ball and hand it to each other and our offensive line got a push and we got into the end zone that way.”

Nigro finished with 128 rushing yards on 25 carries, was 4-8 for 53 yards passing and hauled in one pass for eight yards. He was the main source of offense for the Rams, scoring their second touchdown of the day just 30 seconds after Brown’s 27-yard jaunt.

But on the final possession, Nigro lost the grip of the football on the goal line, coming up just one yard short of a dramatic scoring play.

South River’s first touchdown of the game came when freshman Michael Desantis found Kareem Wilson for a six-yard score in the final minute of the first half. Desantis was 1-2 passing for those six yards and the touchdown. Khaliyl Everett rushed 10 times for 27 yards as a change-of-pace option for South River.

KEANSBURG (1-3) 6-0-6-6 — 18

SOUTH RIVER (0-4) 0-7-6-0 — 13


K–Brown 71 run (run failed)

SR–Wilson 6 pass from Desantis (Desantis kick)

K–Brown 27 run (pass failed)

SR–Nigro 2 run (kick failed)

K–Terry 3 run (kick failed)


Passing – K: Terry 0-1-0, Vital 0-1-0; SR: Nigro 4-8-53, Desantis 1-2-6.

Rushing – K: Brown 21-155, Vital 6-31, Terry 7-14, Castell 2-6; SR: Nigro 25-128, Everett 10-27, Hart 1-7.

Receiving – K: None; SR: Pacheco 2-21, Everett 1-21, Wilson 2-17, Nigro 1-8.

Garrett leads South Brunswick over Sayreville

MONMOUTH JCT. Clinging to a 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Jaier Garrett stepped up and made his biggest play of the season, picking off Sayreville quarterback Jayson Demild and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown, icing a 32-12 victory for the South Brunswick High School football team on Friday night.

Garrett finished with two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as the Vikings turned Sayreville over four times in downright miserable conditions.

“That felt great; we finally beat Sayreville after four years of not beating them, so it was great to put the icing on the cake. We played so well and we did this one together,” Garrett said.

Garrett, a senior, forced and recovered a fumble with the game tied 6-6 in the second quarter and picked off Demild on Sayreville’s opening possession of the second half, when the game was still a one-possession affair.

But after Garrett’s interception with 8:12 to go in the third quarter, it was all South Brunswick (3-1), as the Vikings turned to bruising tailback Phil Campbell to put the Bombers away.

Campbell finished with 20 carries for 114 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which came with 1:09 left in the third quarter to put South Brunswick up 26-12. Campbell intercepted a Demild pass three plays later to further dampen the spirits of Sayreville (2-2).

“We have a lot of chemistry on the defensive side of the ball and we all step up in the big games,” Campbell said.

Campbell led the South Brunswick rushing attack as the Vikings outgained Sayreville 243-109 on the ground.

“Coach said that the weather was going to be bad and maybe play a factor in the game and we just had to grind out on the ground,” Campbell said. “I knew I had to step up today.”

Sayreville got on the board first when Demild hit Jahsim Floyd for a 9-yard touchdown four plays into the second quarter, but the Bombers were limited to just six points the rest of the way, only scoring again when Demild hit Bertrand for a 15-yard score on a fourth-and-6 from the South Brunswick 15 with 1:54 left in the third stanza.

Demild finished 5-of-12 for 64 yards and those two scores, but was picked off three times. Michael Liberti paced the Sayreville offensive attack with 68 rushing yards on 19 carries.

But in the second half, when South Brunswick outscored Sayreville 20-6, it was all about the defense of the Vikings, led by Garrett.

“Our line starting playing really great in the second half and they got some good pressure on their running backs and they didn’t get a ton of yards. We had so much aggression, wanting to win this game, so we left it on the field,” he said. “The weather didn’t play a factor in our game and we felt great. I love this team; they’re my brothers and no matter what, rain or shine, we’ll always do our best.”

SAYREVILLE (2-2) 0-6-6-0-12

SOUTH BRUNSWICK (3-1) 0-12-14-6-32


S – Floyd 9 pass from Demild (kick failed)

SB – Campbell 25 run (pass failed)

SB – Shorter 22 pass from Liao (run failed)

SB – Allen 5 run (run failed)

S – Bertrand 15 pass from Demild (pass failed)

SB – Campbell 2 run (Campbell run)

SB – Garrett 27 interception return (pass failed)


Passing – S: Demild 5-12-64-3; SB: Liao 3-8-36.

Rushing – S: Liberti 19-68, Roberts 2-19, Bertrand 3-14, Thomas 2-6, Carter 2-4, Demild 1-minus 2; SB: Campbell 20-114, Jabbie 4-41, Allen 10-36, Garrett 1-32, Liao 2-9.

Receiving – S: Floyd 2-35, Bertrand 1-15, O’Brien 1-9, Liberti 1-5; SB: Shorter 2-26, Jabbie 1-11.

Barnwell, Ashley power Piscataway over Edison

PISCATAWAY — Elijah Barnwell rushed for 202 yards and a touchdown and Zaire Ashley punished Edison’s interior defense with 77 yards and two scores as the Piscataway High School football team ran away with a 37-6 decision on Friday night.

Barnwell rushed for 145 yards and a 67-yard touchdown jaunt in the opening half and had a pair of scores called back due to holding penalties in the third quarter to lead the Chiefs to their third straight win to open the season.

“It frustrates me for a little bit, but I just reload,” Barnwell said of the touchdowns taken off the board due to penalties. “But I’m just happy that we were winning and we came back the next plays and got it done tonight.”

Barnwell and Ashley combined for a powerful one-two punch, with Ashley doing most of his work between the tackles and Barnwell gashing the Eagles defense outside the numbers. The junior tailback said he tells Ashley during the game that he’s simply too much to deal with at times.

“I motivate him every time he’s about to get the ball; I’ll tell him that the defense can’t stop him and he does the same to me,” Barnwell said.

The Chiefs jumped out to a 10-0 lead after the first quarter, thanks to a 10-yard score from Ashley and the first of three field goals from Mike Stalenyj. After Haaziq Daniels found pay dirt from two yards out for an Edison touchdown, Barnwell’s 67-yard touchdown sandwiched between two more Stalenyj field goals put the hosts up 23-6 at the half.

“I was really excited that Mike did a good job with the kicking tonight,” Piscataway head coach Dan Higgins said. “Those are really important, down the road those are three points that could decide a game. So we were working on the kicking game this week and I’m glad that we were able to do well in all three phases tonight.”

Edison (1-2) stopped Piscataway on downs on the Chiefs’ first possession of the second half, but James Stewart fumbled at the Eagles’ 35-yard line to kill the drive. Edison fumbled three times and Daniels threw a first-quarter interception to thwart four potential scoring drives.

A one-yard plunge by Ashley made the score 30-6 with 3:35 left in the third quarter and quarterback Dan Haus hit Aidan Rosa for a 21-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to cap the scoring.

Piscataway out-gained Edison 345-34 on the ground.

Daniels went 9-20 for 160 yards through the air for Edison, hitting four different receivers.

“Edison is a very, very explosive offensive team and you can see that they’re one missed tackle away from big plays and scores, so when we were able to get some turnovers, that really turned the complexity of the game around for us,” Higgins said. “We wanted to run the ball and possess it and keep their offense on the sideline, so every time we got an extra chance at a touch, it was to our advantage.”

EDISON (1-2) 0-6-0-0-6

PISCATAWAY (3-0) 10-13-7-7-37


P – Ashley 10 run (Stalenyj kick)

P – Stalenyj 40 field goal

E – Daniels 2 run (kick failed)

P – Stalenyj 35 field goal

P – Barnwell 67 run (Stalenyj kick)

P – Stalenyj 23 field goal

P – Ashley 1 run (Stalenyj kick)

P – Rosa 21 pass from Haus (Stalenyj kick)


Passing – E: Daniels 9-20-160-1; P: Haus 8-12-98.

Rushing – E: Davila 3-19, Turner 2-8, Daniels 3-5, Stewart 11-4, Strickland 1-minus 2; P: Barnwell 17-202, Ashley 12-77, Williams 4-34, Haus 3-13, Hernandez 2-9, C. James 1-7, Fash 1-3.

Receiving – E: Yanik 3-76, Davila 4-49, Stewart 1-18, Baez 1-17; P: N. James 2-44, Rosa 1-21, Ashley 2-20, Barnwell 2-12, Boyd 1

Asbury Park holds off Metuchen

METUCHEN — Charles Sanders scored the game-winning touchdown on a three-yard run with just over six minutes to play, and the Asbury Park High School football team’s defense held Metuchen on a fourth down try with 1:31 left to emerge victorious, 20-15, on Saturday afternoon.

Bulldogs quarterback Jake Lebovits appeared to have tight end Devin Miller for a first down to continue the final drive, but Miller couldn’t hold on and the Bishops took over.

“It was like déjà vu all over again from last week,” Asbury Park head coach Tim Fosquel said. “We had some things not go in our favor today, but it was nice for that one to go our way for our kids, because they really do work hard.”

Metuchen was able to get the ball back with 27 seconds remaining, but Lebovits’ first pass of the drive was intercepted by Namir Argilagos to clinch the victory for Asbury Park (1-1).

The Bishops got a big performance from quarterback Davon Thompson, who threw two touchdowns to Jaedon Stephens, including a 32-yard strike on a fourth-and-15 late in the third quarter.

“Coach just tells me where to put the ball and if I scramble out of the pocket, I look for my main guy, Stephens, and I just put it in a spot where I knew he could catch it. He made a great play and was great all day,” Thompson said.

The dual-threat Thompson finished 7-of-11 passing for 148 yards and the two scores and added 68 yards on just eight carries to gash the Bulldogs’ defense.

The game was tied 6-6 at the half after a very sloppy opening 24 minutes, which saw Asbury Park’s first four drives end in turnovers (three fumbles, one interception) and Metuchen having thrown an interception on its opening possession and getting a field goal blocked.

“We were in a good position going into halftime, with all of the mistakes that we made,” Fosquel said. “We thought if we could get some things cleaned up we could get it together and win this game. The kids came out in the second half and responded; we made some adjustments and it was a dogfight back-and-forth.”

Lebovits got the scoring started with a one-yard touchdown run after Joe Hronich recovered his second fumble of the opening stanza, but the Bulldogs didn’t score again until Anthony Maloney hit a 30-yard field goal eight minutes into the second half.

In between Thompson’s second touchdown pass to Stephens and Sanders’ game-winning score, Peter DiMeglio gave Metuchen (1-1) a short-lived lead by rushing home from 11 yards out. Seven plays later, Sanders found pay dirt to put the Bishops ahead for good.

“For us, in terms of coming back from last week’s tough loss, getting on the road and pulling this one out is a great win for us,” Hill said. “It puts us in a great position and if we clean some stuff up, we’ll be a pretty competitive football team.”

For Metuchen, Trevor Firgau led the way with 99 yards on 19 carries, while also catching two passes for 19 yards and coming up with an interception and a fumble recovery on defense. Miller ended up with four catches for 98 yards and added a five-yard rush, but Lebovits was just 8-of-19 for 134 yards and two interceptions in the losing effort.

“We just didn’t play very well. We had the ball offensively and weren’t able to execute what we wanted to do,” Metuchen head coach Bob Ulmer said. “They played well; Asbury Park is a good team and hats off to them, they beat us. We just made too many mistakes to win.”

ASBURY PARK (1-1) 0-6-8-6-20

METUCHEN (1-1) 6-0-3-6-15



Passing – AP: Thompson 7-11-148-1; M: Lebovits 8-19-134-2, Firgau 0-2-0.

Rushing – AP: Thompson 8-68, Sanders 11-49, Davis 10-39, Abrams 3-22, Saunders 2-13; M: Firgau 19-99, DiMeglio 11-56, Lebovits 8-10, Miller 1-5, Serieux 1-0.

Receiving – AP: Stephens 4-91, Saunders 2-51, Abrams 1-6; M: Miller 4-98, Firgau 2-19, Serieux 2-17.

Ffrench leads New Brunswick over South Plainfield

SOUTH PLAINFIELD — Maurice Ffrench rushed for 171 yards and two touchdowns and the New Brunswick High School football team held South Plainfield to just 26 yards of offense in a 27-12 victory at Frank Jost Field on Friday night.

The Zebras limited the Tigers to minus-4 yards on offense in the game’s first half, and pitched a shutout after intermission to start the season with back-to-back victories.

“I thought we gutted it out and grinded in the second half; we made some mistakes on special teams, but I thought up front we did a pretty good job,” New Brunswick head coach Don Sofilkanich said.

Ffrench put the game out of reach for good with an 18-yard touchdown run with 8:52 left in the game. He said afterwards that the Tigers’ defense didn’t intimidate him and his teammates.

“I saw they didn’t look like they wanted to tackle us, so I knew I was going to press them and they didn’t do a good job of containing the outside, and that’s what I do. If you let me go to the outside, it’s six,” Ffrench said.

The senior tailback led a Zebras rushing attack that ended the game with 290 yards on the ground on 46 attempts. Samad Davila rushed 24 times for 104 yards and a three-yard touchdown and quarterback Jahbree Jeffery added 11 yards on seven carries and a touchdown, while going 3-for-8 and 51 yards passing.

“We spread it around and gave it to some different guys and whoever had the hot hand, we went with him. That’s how it works. I think the kids did a nice job,” Sofilkanich said.

After Ffrench scampered home with a 44-yard touchdown for New Brunswick to put the Zebras up 14-6 in the second quarter, Ruben Torres returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a score, cutting the lead to just two after the two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.

Torres helped set up the Tigers’ first touchdown of the game, bringing the opening kickoff 66 yards down to the New Brunswick 8-yard line. He finished with 165 return yards on the game.

Jason Lee carried twice on the opening drive for South Plainfield, the second time for six yards and his fifth touchdown in two games this season after going for four in the Tigers’ 27-6 season-opening win over St. Joseph last Friday. But he was limited the rest of the way to just 32 yards on his final 13 carries to finish with 40 yards on the night.

South Plainfield quarterback Patrick Waldorp was pressured all night by the New Brunswick defense, completing just 2-11 passes for only three yards, while taking two sacks for a total of minus-23 yards.

“We were riding the wave from last week and we didn’t come to play. We didn’t play tough like last week. It’s a learning experience. We’re not as good as we think we are. We have to get better,” South Plainfield head coach Gary Cassio said.

NEW BRUNSWICK (2-0) 7-14-0-6-27

SOUTH PLAINFIELD (1-1) 6-6-0-0-12


SP – Lee 6 run (kick failed)

NB – Davila 3 run (Garcia kick)

NB – Ffrench 44 run (Garcia kick)

SP – Torres 80 kick return (pass failed)

NB – Jeffery 1 run (Garcia kick)

NB – Ffrench 18 run (kick failed)


Passing – NB: Jeffery 3-8-51; SP: Waldorp 2-11-3, Lee 0-1, Marston 0-1.

Rushing – NB: Ffrench 14-171, Davila 24-104, Jeffery 7-11, Jackson 1-4; SP: Lee 15-40, Gonzalez 3-13, Lundy 1-0, Torres 1-0, Waldorp 2-minus 23.

Receiving – NB: Hernandez 1-22, Ffrench 1-21, Davila 1-8; SP: Sepini 1-10, Lee, 1-minus 7.

Middletown South grabs convincing win over South Brunswick

SOUTH BRUNSWICK  Before the haze had cleared from an unexpected halftime firework shoot-off, the Middletown South High School football team was on top and in control of its season opener.

James McCarthy raced home from 47 yards out on the third play of the second half and added a 60-yard rushing touchdown four minutes later to send Middletown South, No. 1 in the Asbury Park Press’ Top-10, to a 41-21 victory over South Brunswick, No. 1 in the Home News Tribune Top-10 on Friday night.

McCarthy finished with 152 yards on just 11 carries, picking up some slack from last year’s leading rusher, Cole Rogers, who was held to just 47 yards by a stingy South Brunswick defense.

“We had to work hard all summer and when we came out in the second half, we put that work on the field and we did it,” McCarthy said.

Rogers, who posted 1,867 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns last season for the Eagles, dealt with cramps on a muggy night, and played sparingly in the second half, opening the door for McCarthy’s big night.

“We help each other every way we can, and we push each other in practice,” McCarthy said, speaking of Rogers. “Tonight, he was definitely helping me out when I was running.”

McCarthy’s first touchdown gave Middletown South the lead just 1:06 into the second half, erasing an early 21-3 lead that was built by South Brunswick. The Vikings used a down-field aerial attack to blitz the Eagles, with junior quarterback Josh Liao delivering three touchdown passes in the first quarter and a half.

Liao hit Justin Shorter for a 33-yard score to cap the game’s opening drive and found Jaier Garrett for a 72-yard catch-and-run later in the stanza. After a Matt Mosquera 45-yard field goal, Liao hit Mohamed Jabbie for a 47-yard strike to put the Vikings up 18.

“Did I think we’d be up 21-3 in the first quarter? Never. I expected this to be a dogfight and it was exciting,” South Brunswick head coach Joe Goerge said. “They started to take over in the second quarter and we gave up a couple of big plays that hurt. That’s a damn good team. They wore us down.”

Mosquera added his second field goal of the game midway through the second quarter, a 32-yarder, before starting to put up numbers of his own. The Eagles’ quarterback hit Samson Dube with a 72-yard scoring pass with 3:07 left in the first half and raced home with an 8-yard run with just 33 seconds to play before halftime. The senior finished with 174 all-purpose yards, including 61 on the ground, to spearhead the Middletown South comeback.

“Our guys have motiviaton and we have a lot of skilled players that can do some things and we showed a little bit of that tonight and at the end it came down to the offensive line doing its job,” Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci said.

The Eagles earned a bit of redemption, after losing to South Brunswick 36-24 a year ago, but Antonucci said that this season is about one simple thing.

“I don’t look at it as revenge or redemption or any of that stuff we just want to win,” he said.

Liao finished 15-26 for 252 yards and the three touchdowns, but was intercepted at the end of a 12-play drive that ended with no points in the third quarter.

Tom Marron iced the game with a 52-yard punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter for Middletown South.

MIDDLETOWN SOUTH (1-0) 3-17-14-7-41

SOUTH BRUNSWICK (0-1) 14-7-0-0-21


SB – Shorter 33 pass from Liao (Fehte kick)

SB – Garrett 72 pass from Liao (Fehte kick)

MS – Mosquera 45 kick

SB – Jabbie 47 pass from Liao (Fehte kick)

MS – Mosquera 32 kick

MS – Dube 72 pass from Mosquera (Mosquera kick)

MS – Mosquera 8 run (Mosquera kick)

MS – McCarthy 47 run (Mosquera kick)

MS – McCarthy 60 run (Mosquera kick)

MS – Marron 52 punt return (Mosquera kick)

Passing – 
MS: Mosquera 4-10-113-1; SB: Liao 15-26-252-3-1.

Rushing – MS: McCarthy 11-152, Mosquera 7-61, C. Rogers 17-47, Pinto 3-12, Alessi 2-7, Pignataro 3-3, Team 1-0; SB: Cerminaro 4-10, Campbell 6-8, Summers 4-7, Allen 6-4, Hiil 1-1, Jabbie 1-0, Liao 7-minus 4.

Receiving – MS: Dube 2-76, Joyce 1-6, Team 2-36; SB: Jabbie 6-91, Garrett 1-72, Shorter 4-58, Allen 3-21.

Bantz makes his mark at, and behind, plate

Brandon Bantz has hit nearly .300 since the All-Star break. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

Brandon Bantz has hit nearly .300 since the All-Star break. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

The life of a catcher in the minor leagues can be a tiring one. The lengthy roadtrips and extreme temperatures, taking a toll on the players that strap on the tools of ignorance. The turnover on pitching staffs and pressure to keep up with new players on a nearly daily basis.

But for Brandon Bantz, as the season has gone on, his performance has spiked instead of dipped.

Bantz, who has played semi-regularly for the Zephyrs since joining the club in late-April, is batting .298 (17-for-57) in 19 games since the All-Star break and displaying above-average ability to throw out base runners. In his seventh year of professional baseball, Bantz has learned how to improve as a player over the course of a long season, just focusing on himself day in and day out.

“It’s always a grind, especially in this league with the travel as it is. If you’re not used to it, first year up, it’s kind of like ‘holy smokes, what is going on here?’ But you get used to it after that first year and you start to get into a routine and know what to expect, so that’s a plus coming in after being in this league for a couple of stints,” he said. “I have specifically learned for myself is just more growing and who I am as a player. Getting better at understanding who I am and what I do and what it’s going to take for me to contribute and be a player at the next level.”

Bantz had a very brief cup of coffee in the majors in 2013 with Seattle, batting twice against Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees. Since then, he has been in both the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins organizations, settling in this season as a backup for the Zephyrs.

He hit .286 in 15 games in May before struggling in June (.224 average, 14 strikeouts), but Bantz’s defense has never waned. His ability to throw out baserunners has been lethal this season, as he’s nabbed 12 of 34 potential runners (.353 percentage) and it’s something he takes serious pride in.

“A lot of times it gets boring back there when nobody runs, so for me I love when you get a team that runs a lot. I take it personally. I love that challenge when I know a team is going to run and I try to own that and win that battle,” Bantz said. “It’s a strength of mine and I have to continue to maintain and get better at.”

If he had enough games played to qualify for the league leaderboard, Bantz would rank third among Pacific Coast League catchers in throwing out baserunners. It would also be the best mark by a Zephyrs backstop since Gustavo Molina in 2008.

When he’s at the plate and not behind it, Bantz has taken off offensively, hitting .324 (11-for-34) in August and significantly cutting down on his strikeout totals. Over the season’s first three months, he struck out 27 times in 99 at-bats, and since July 1, Bantz has struck out only seven times in 76 plate appearances.

“With this being my seventh year, I’ve been through it a little bit and I am more accustomed to the rigors of a season and everybody is different, everybody’s bodies are different, but I have learned what works for me during the season to keep me healthy and fresh towards the end of the season. If I were in the big leagues, we’d have a whole month to go now. You have to be ready for that,” he said.

If Bantz is to make it back to the big leagues, whether it be with Miami or another organization, his dual-threat ability to not only hit when given the opportunity but to also neutralize an opponent’s running game plays in any situation.

“I think it’s something I take pride in, being able to be an everyday player in the big leagues. That’s our goal: to be that kind of a guy. Obviously we all can’t be that, but that’s the mentality and you want to be out there every day helping your team,” he said.

Ozuna finds his footing in New Orleans

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Coming into 2015, the Miami Marlins had reasons to believe that this would be the season to break a 12-year playoff drought since winning the franchise’s second World Series in 2003.

The team had acquired Dee Gordon and Dan Haren from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and veteran righty Mat Latos from Cincinnati. They gave superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton a 13-year, $325 million contract extension, the richest contract in American sports history.

Miami had the makings of one of the best outfields in the game, with all three positions occupied by players 25 years old or younger. Christian Yelich, a 2014 National League Gold Glove winner, also signed a new contract with the club prior to the season after batting .284 with nine home runs and 54 RBI in his first full season.

But the player who manned the outfield between Stanton and Yelich flashed two-way ability that could impact the game like few others in the league. 24-year-old Marcell Ozuna, the club’s starting center fielder, was coming off a season in which he hit .269 with 23 home runs, 26 doubles and 85 RBI. He played defense at a high level, racking up 10 outfield assists to rank second in the National League.

However, the 2015 season has not gone the way Ozuna or the Marlins would have liked it to, as the Dominican Republic native went 1-for-37 over a 10-game stretch before being optioned to New Orleans on July 5. He had been hitting .249 with four homers and 26 RBI for Miami in 79 games. It was the first demotion of any kind for Ozuna since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2008.

“It’s funny, I have so much history with Ozuna; I’ve know him since he signed,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “I managed instructional league the day he came in and it’s funny to see him go from a little kid, basically, to what he is now and in the grand scheme of things, like I’ve told him about 10 times, this is the best thing that could ever happen to him. I think he’s a major league All-Star and I think he could be a superstar-type player.”

Ozuna has come to New Orleans and performed the way he’s capable of, batting .353 with 12 extra-base hits in 18 games, while collecting four homers and nine RBI. He recently rescued the Zephyrs with a game-tying home run in the ninth inning in Nashville, and has hit .524 (11-for-21) in the seventh inning and later.

“You just don’t see guys that can do what he does with the bat,” Haines said. “Some of the balls he’s hit and the way he can play the outfield and throw. I don’t know if I’ve had a player handle it better, coming from the big leagues to Triple-A. He just plays with a joy about him and he’s happy and he’s been a good teammate.”

For now, as he continues to rack up the hits against Pacific Coast League pitchers, Ozuna awaits the call that will bring him back to Miami. He said it’s been tough, but he continues to put his best foot forward and hone his craft.

“I am just waiting for Miami to give me the chance again to play in the big leagues,” Ozuna said. “That’s what I work for and what I wait for.”

As for his recent run of success with the Zephyrs, Ozuna said he isn’t trying to do too much, instead focusing on the basics.

“I’m just going out there trying to hit the ball. I don’t do anything specific. I just hit the ball and stay back,” he said.

Rienzo makes most of All-Star opportunity

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL's 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL’s 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

When the Pacific Coast League announced the players it had selected to attend the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game at Werner Park in Omaha, Zephyrs starter Andre Rienzo’s name was not on the list, despite a 2.75 ERA.

But when fellow starter Adam Conley was summoned from New Orleans to Miami for a spot start the Saturday before the break, Rienzo was chosen to replace his teammate for his third career All-Star nod. It was an honor that Rienzo said he was very humbled to accept.

“Conley deserved it and couldn’t go after he got called up, so I went and I really appreciate that the team gave me a chance to go,” Rienzo said.

Having previously pitched in the 2011 California/Carolina League All-Star Game and the 2013 Futures Game, Rienzo was able to draw from his experience and work around a leadoff walk to toss a scoreless second inning in an eventual 4-3 PCL loss to the International League’s best.

“I have been in the bullpen before so I just tried to relax and not do too much, because sometimes when you go to the bullpen you do too much and get a loss. I just wanted to go to the All-Star Game and have fun. The game is about having fun and I tried my best and had fun with the whole thing,” Rienzo said.

The 27-year-old right-hander from Brazil had set down the two batters he faced in the California/Carolina League tilt and then followed that up two summers later with a perfect frame with a national audience at the Futures Game at Citi Field. Pitching for the World Team, Rienzo got San Diego’s Austin Hedges to pop up, got Cincinnati’s speed demon Billy Hamilton to ground out, and struck out Texas’s Delino DeShields Jr.

Rienzo said he didn’t think too much about his impressive performance two years ago, instead opting to just go out there and try his best and have fun.

“The Futures Game was different. Everybody in that game was just happy to be there, and our league’s All-Star Game is in the middle of the season so we can just have fun and see friends from other teams on the other side,” he said.

After walking Dixon Machado to open the second inning last Wednesday, Rienzo got Jackie Bradley Jr. to line out and then induced a groundout from James Beresford before striking out Matt Hague to end his night in front of the national TV audience on MLB Network.

Setting aside the TV cameras, Rienzo focused on his task and has now thrown 2 2/3 scoreless innings in three career All-Star appearances.

“It’s really cool because this is one of the things you work for,” Rienzo said. “You care a lot about your teammates and your team, but sometimes when you have that kind of chance to be by yourself in an All-Star Game, it’s pretty cool.”

Galloway making a difference on defense

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

On any ballclub, there always seems to be at least one player that makes highlight-reel plays and impacts games with his glove and arm.

For the New Orleans Zephyrs, that man is clearly Isaac Galloway.

Galloway has hit .243 in 67 games in his first season at Triple-A, but has been a difference-maker for the Zephyrs in the outfield, consistently running down fly balls and on occasion robbing home runs from the opposition.

Galloway has said that he takes batting practice seriously, using the time before games to practice his routes to fly balls and keep his legs in shape so he can be a game-changer.

“My legs are important. I have to make sure I keep them fresh to run down balls,” he said. “But I try and take good routes in BP and I take that pretty serious. I try to make my defense as important as my offense.”

The offensive side of the game has slowly started to come around for the 26-year-old Galloway, who has hit .300 (9-for-30) in nine July games. He has been in the lineup 66 of 71 games since joining the club in late-April and Galloway said that being in there nearly every day has helped him mature as a player.

“Last year my playing time and at-bats were sporadic and that was kind of the first time for me that I had to deal with that,” he said. “It was an adjustment for me and I didn’t know how to handle that. But this year, I’ve gotten a lot more playing time and more consistent playing time so that has helped me get into more of a rhythm.”

Galloway is tied for the team lead with six stolen bases, despite not having one since June 17. He said he wants to run as often as possible for the Z’s, who have the third-fewest stolen bases in the league, but knows he needs to pick and choose his spots well.

“I try and go for it as much as possible when I get on base,” Galloway said. “This isn’t a team that runs too much and when I get on I try and make something happen.”

A player that relies on his speed to be dangerous, Galloway has set a new career-best with seven triples this season, and had a walk-off RBI single against Omaha on June 13 during a stretch where he had at least one hit in 13 of 16 games.

He has hit .274 with six doubles, five triples and two home runs at home, compared to .213 with six extra-base hits on the road. Considering New Orleans is no paradise to hit in compared to some of the higher-elevated cities in the Pacific Coast League, Galloway said he doesn’t change his approach depending on where he’s digging into the batter’s box.

“I’ve never thought about it or even realized it,” he said. “I have the same approach, home or away, so I guess I am just a little more comfortable at home.”

For a player that collected his first Triple-A hit off Barry Zito on April 25, Galloway has not eased up at all, knowing he’s nearly assured of being slotted into center field upon arrival into the Zephyrs’ clubhouse.

“When I first got called up here, I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “But I just try to play hard and play well and I definitely don’t take playing every day for granted.”


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