Pitcher Josh Pennington sat in the Lower Cape May Regional High School dugout and watched Denny Brady of Buena Regional strike out hitter after hitter Tuesday afternoon.
After the final out of each inning Brady pitched, Pennington walked to the mound with one thought.
"Now, it's my turn," he said.
Pennington and Brady combined to strike out 29 hitters in 15 innings as Buena beat Lower 3-2 in eight innings.
Their efforts were just the latest in a series of stellar Cape-Atlantic League pitching performances.
"It's definitely the year of the pitcher," Pennington said.
Also on Tuesday, Mike Dilanni of Holy Spirit threw a no-hitter in a 2-0 win over Mainland Regional. Roberto Rivera and Kyle Cox of Millville combined to beat Hammonton 1-0 and Matt Ardente of Absegami struck out 10 as the Braves beat Egg Harbor Township 1-0 in eight innings.
Tuesday was not unusual at all. There were several outstanding pitching performances last week during the first few days of the season.
Misael Castillo of Egg Harbor Township and Zach Altieri of Ocean City threw no-hitters, while Joe Gatto and Anthony Meduri of St. Augustine combined for a no-hitter. Freshman Brendan Bean of Wildwood struck out 15 Wildwood Catholic hitters.
The pitching has been so good that Cox did not allow a hit in 7 innings against Vineland on April 1 and lost. Vineland pitcher Johnny Malatesta allowed one run in eight innings for the win.
“I love when it’s a pitcher’s game,” Pennington said. “You get that feeling that both pitchers are trying to outdo each other. The game goes so much quicker. It feels like everything goes by faster. You feel like you should be in the third inning when you might be in the fifth.”
The pitchers have attracted the attention of scouts. Gatto (North Carolina) and Zach Warren of St. Augustine (Tulane), Matt Tepedino of Mainland Regional (New Orleans), Malatesta (NJIT), Pennington (St. John’s), Brady (East Carolina) and sophomore Sean Mooney of Ocean City (St. John’s) all have committed to NCAA Division I programs.
Pro scouts follow Gatto and Pennington, who hit 94 mph on the radar gun against Buena Regional.
“With the high school game, you can see it go both ways,” Millville coach Roy Hallenbeck said. “I can remember some years where there didn’t seem to be any pitching anywhere. Every game we played was 10-8. Now it seems like everybody has dominant arms.”
Cox of Millville has not only pitched well but is also one of the few CAL hitters excelling, with two home runs this season.
“I take it as a challenge,” Cox said of facing these top pitchers. “You just have to relax, slow the game down and try to win the battle each pitch.”
So why have the pitchers been so dominant?
Pitchers are normally more proficient than hitters early in the season. The bad weather in March probably exacerbated that fact this year. While pitchers were able to throw indoors and build their arm strength, hitters didn’t get as many at-bats because scrimmages were canceled.
But there’s no denying this is just an exceptional group of pitchers. They throw hard and mix in changeups and other off-speed pitches.
“We’re not just fastball pitchers,” Pennington said. “We’re able to establish our off-speed pitches, our sliders, our curveballs and our changeups and throw them for strikes to keep hitters off-balance.”
The pitchers work on their games year round. They attended showcase events to attract the attention of scouts. Many of them work with private pitching coaches.
“When I grew up, if you took private lessons, that was a luxury,” Holy Spirit coach Steve Normane said. “Now, it’s almost a necessity.”
The stingy pitching has forced teams to build runs. They can’t rely on extra-base hits. The emphasis is on strategy, bunting runners into scoring position and stealing bases.
“You have to relax more and try to do less when you’re hitting against a pitcher who’s really good,” Hallenbeck said. “A lot of times, those guys will use a (hitter’s) aggressiveness against him.”
The excellent pitching has made for an exciting start to the season. Games are close. Every pitch matters. Holy Spirit won four of its first five games. The Spartans outscored their opponents 10-7 in those contests. Millville saw a total of 17 runs scored in their first four games.
The games are quick, usually lasting around two hours.
“I like it,” Hallenbeck said. “I think the game is much cleaner and better played when you put two pitchers on the mound who are working quick and throwing strikes. It makes the game better.”
It seems everyone is having fun — except the hitters.
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