• Dan Russoman

Blue Devils fall short in opener


Paul Kalani delivers a pitch late in Hammonton’s game against Highland last weekend. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

LINWOOD—Kyle Kennedy’s solo home run in the top of the eighth inning lifted Highland Regional to a 5-4 victory over Hammonton, thwarting a late comeback by the Blue Devils and spoiling their season-opener at a Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase matchup at Mainland Regional High School.


Hammonton had forced extra innings with a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Kennedy connected off Blue Devils reliever Paul Kalani, sending the eventual game-winning home run over the right center field fence.


“We had some opportunities, especially early in the game, but we just couldn’t get that one big hit when we needed it. We had guys on base, but kept coming up a little short,” Hammonton coach Gregg Silvesti said.


Hammonton starter Sean Konopka worked in and out of trouble for three innings, allowing three runs on six hits with four walks, four strikeouts and a hit batsman.


Highland was patient against the hard-throwing Konopka, taking pitches and fouling some off, forcing the lanky right-hander to work deep in counts.


“I thought Sean [Konopka] threw a pretty good game. He was around the plate with most of his pitches and they [Highland] had a few that fell in that hurt us a little,” Silvesti said.


After Konopka stranded a pair of runners in the top of the first, Hammonton scored a run in its half of the frame to take a 1-0 lead.


The Blue Devils could have had more, but stranded two runners in the inning.


“That was big. I think if we score two or three runs there, it’s a different game,” Silvesti said.


Lukas Guerrier led off with a single for Hammonton, then stole second and third, eventually scoring when D.J. Adamucci hit into a fielder’s choice. Kole Bagnell was hit by a pitch, putting runners on first and third for Hammonton with two outs, but Highland pitcher Vincent Davis struck out A.J. Ryker to end the threat.


In the second, Highland grabbed the lead with three runs. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases for John Melnychuck, who lined a two-run single into center field to put the Tartans in front. Davis’ RBI single later in the inning gave Highland a 3-1 lead.


The score stayed the same until the top of the fourth, when Kennedy was hit by a pitch, moved to third on back-to-back walks and scored on Melnychuck’s fielder’s choice for a 4-1 Highland lead.


Hammonton grabbed one run back in the bottom of the fourth, as Bagnell was hit by a pitch, moved to second on an error and came around to score when Drew Fields reached on an error.


Once again, the Blue Devils were unable to gain any momentum, as Davis worked out of the jam, stranding two runners.


Still trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Hammonton rallied for two runs to tie the game and send it into extra innings.


Guerrier reached on an error to start the rally, and moved to third when Drew Haines doubled. Two batters later, Adamucci sent a hard ground ball to short that was mishandled, allowing him to reach base and Guerrier to score, cutting Highland’s lead to 4-3.


After Bagnell walked to load the bases, Ryker sent a fly ball to center that drove in Haines with the tying run.


Highland quickly took back the lead, however, in the top of the eighth, when Kennedy took Kalani deep for a solo home run that proved to be the difference in the game.


“The kids got a hold of one and he beat us. I thought we pitched very well today, from Sean [Konopka] to [reliever Ryan] Beebe and then Kalani. Those guys battled but we didn’t give them any runs,” Silvesti said.


Beebe and Kalani combined for five innings of relief, allowing just two runs on two hits with three combined strikeouts and three walks.


Earlier this week, Hammonton played twice against Millville, but those games ended too late for this edition. The Blue Devils’ next game is April 11 at home against Atlantic County Institute of Technology at 4 p.m.