Nick Houghton of Nottingham hurled the Northstars to the MCT Final game against Allentown. File Photo by Michael A. Sabo
By Rich Fisher
May 14: The way Jim Maher figures it, you don’t save your ace for a championship game that may never exist.
Thus, Maher wisely put Nick Houghton on the mound tonight and the senior came through in pitching the Nottingham High baseball team to a 4-2 win over 7th-seeded Princeton in a Mercer County Tournament semifinal Monday night at DeMeo Field.
The 3rd-seeded Northstars will make their second championship appearance in three years Tuesday night when they meet top-seeded Hopewell in the 7 p.m. final at DeMeo. The two have not met yet this year as, ironically, they were supposed to have played today in a regular-season matchup for the MCT took over.
When Princeton upset 2nd-seeded Allentown in the quarterfinals, there were some whispers Maher should assume he would beat the Little Tigers and save Houghton for the final.
“A couple people were trying to convince me not to pitch him tonight,” Maher said. “You gotta get there first. And you never know. You could rain, the game could get cancelled.”
It was the right move, as Princeton and pitcher Ben Amon looked like the real deal in giving Nottingham all it could handle.
The winningest pitcher in Nottingham history was not dominating but made the pitches when he had to after allowing Princeton (13-7) two runs in the third inning.
“I didn’t have my best stuff today,” Houghton said. “I had to try to do my best to stay on top of them and shut them down. Those two runs, they earned them. I just had to do my job to keep them from getting more.”
The runs came on Alec Silverman’s two-run double to centerfield that David “The Scientist” Scott appeared to have a bead on before it flew over his head.
Nottingham (19-4) got one back in the bottom of the inning when Jacob Fanning doubled and went to third on Phil Rojek’s bunt single. Brett Hoffman then bounced to third and Fanning broke home. He got in a rundown and was eventually called safe when the umpire ruled defensive obstruction on the Little Tigers.
What looked like a fluke was actually choreographed.
“We work on that,” assistant coach Tom “Father of the V-P” Carr said. “We practice that to try and draw the kid out.”
It worked, giving the Northstars the first of three runs that came in on a non-hit.
Amon pitched an outstanding four innings but was done in by control issues in the fifth. Tom McParland walked, stole second and went to third on Scott’s single. Houghton bounced to third and Princeton nailed McParland at the plate.
Next came consecutive walks to birthday boy Bryce “The Scholar” Fremgen and Wyatt Baker to tie the game, and Christian Fuentes’ grounder was booted to allow Houghton to score what proved to be the winning run.
It was not the kind of rally Maher was proud of, but he will take the runs.
“We were fortunate,” said the coach, whose team left nine runners on base. “They made a couple mistakes, they walked a couple of guys. If we hit like that tomorrow we’re not winning. We’re taking good pitches, swinging at bad pitches. Our approach has not been good all year. We’ve talked about it numerous times. It cost us a league title, and it almost cost us again today.”
Nottingham got an insurance run in the sixth when Tom McParland drew a two-out walk, Scott singled, and Houghton helped his cause with an RBI double.
“That was big,” Houghton said. “When you get that two-run lead, I know I can get those guys out without letting two runs get in.”
He did just that allowing runners to reach first and second before getting a fly ball to end it.
Asked how it feels to win an MCT semifinal without his best stuff, Houghton smiled.
“Sometimes it gets a little nerve-wracking but you gotta stay composed in there,” he said. “You gotta try to settle down, do what you know how to do, try not to do too much.”
The hurler, who will be back in left field Tuesday, agreed with his coach that Nottingham needs to produce more offense after getting just five hits.
“We have heart but we need to hit better,” he said. “The past couple games we’ve come up to bat a little slow with our hitting, so we need to work on that. We need to come out big tomorrow.”
It will be the last chance for the senior nucleus of Houghton, Scott, McParland, Fremgen and Rojek, who lost to Steinert in the finals as sophomores.
“That one’s really big for us, especially us seniors,” Houghton said. “We were in it as sophomores, didn’t win it, but this is our year.”
And while it won’t be his last chance, Maher would love to win an MCT title one of these days.
“It’s probably the only thing in my career I haven’t won and it’s big,” the skipper said. “I’d love to win this thing and I’d love for these guys to win it because they deserve it.”
Maher will go after it with an undefeated pitcher on the mound, which helped make it an easy decision to hold Rojek and throw Houghton.
“We’ll go with Phil and Bryce tomorrow,” Maher said. “Phil is 12-0 in his career (7-0 this year), so we feel pretty good with him on the mound.”