Jesse Barbera powers Eastern to Diamond Classic title

Eastern High School celebrates after winning the title game of 45th annual Diamond Classic against St. Augustine.

Jesse Barbera pitches like he’s late for an appointment.

On Monday, the Eastern senior had a date with destiny – and a reservation for the bottom row of the last and possibly best celebratory dog-pile of his baseball career.

Barbera’s final game was a masterpiece. The righthander pitched an eight-inning complete game, allowing just two hits in Eastern’s 4-1 victory over St. Augustine Prep in the championship of the 45th annual Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic.

“The Diamond Classic plays right into Jesse’s mojo,” Eastern catcher Dylan Stezzi said of his batterymate’s fast-paced style, which aligns perfectly with the prestigious tournament’s speed-up rules.

Barbera rarely takes his foot off the rubber. He no sooner receives the baseball back from Stezzi than he is firing another pitch toward the plate.

He works fast and throws strikes, mixing a live fastball that sits around 83 mph with a sharp curve. He went 8-0 this season as the ace of a team that won a share of the Olympic American title and its second Diamond Classic crown in three years.

“I’ve played with some of the best pitchers in the country,” said Eastern senior centerfielder Jack Herman, who scored the winning run on a wild pitch after drawing a two-out walk to start the decisive rally in the top of the eighth. “I’ve never been more confident than I am when Jesse’s on the mound.”

Camera icon Jose Moreno/Staff photographer
Eastern senior Jesse Barbera pitched a two-hit complete game in a 4-1 win over St. Augustine Prep.

The briskly played game featured terrific pitching performances by Barbera and St. Augustine junior righthander Gerry Peacock, who held Eastern to three hits and one run with 11 strikeouts in seven innings.

Senior shortstop Josh Hood hit his 14th home run for St. Augustine (24-4), which will host Notre Dame in the Non-Public South A title game on Tuesday.

“That’s the big one for us,” St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone said. “That’s always our No. 1 goal. This is a goal of ours, and to make the final four of the last eight years, that speaks well for our program.

“But, hats off to them,”  Bylone said of 25-6 Eastern.

Barbera has been the winning pitcher in both of Eastern’s Diamond Classic titles. As a sophomore, he threw a complete-game five-hitter in a 6-1 win over Gloucester Catholic.

“Lot of similarities,” Barbera said of the  games. “Both years, we got knocked out of the [state] tournament; this tournament got pushed back by rain. Both years, we played really good Catholic school teams.”

Eastern coach Rob Christ said the Diamond Classic is the ideal stage for Barbera, because of his pitching style and coolness under pressure.

“I think his middle name is ‘Zen,’ ” Christ said of his laid-back senior.

Winning this tournament is extra-special for Eastern, since the Vikings’ home field is named after Hartmann, their long-time coach.

After Monday’s game, the 86-year-old Hartman posed for photos with Christ and made his way down the third-base line, shaking hands with each of the Vikings.

Camera icon Jose Moreno / Staff photographer
Eastern coach Rob Christ raises the trophy after his team captured the title game of the 45th annual Diamond Classic.

The victory also held special meaning for the seniors. Top-seeded Eastern was knocked out of the South Jersey Group 4 tournament in the second round by division-rival Shawnee. But the Diamond Classic offered the seniors a chance to end their careers on a high note, and Barbera and Herman, among others, took full advantage.

“There’s no better way to finish,” Herman said.

After Herman drew a walk, Stezzi’s singled, with Herman racing to third. He scored on a wild pitch. Matt Kourpousis and A.J. Funari followed with two-out RBI singles for a 4-1 lead.

“It was a lot easier to go out there for the last inning leading by three runs,” said Barbera, who plans to attend Bucknell University and try to walk-on to the baseball team.

He pitched the eighth in typical fashion. He needed just five pitches to end the game, getting three ground outs.

After the last one, Barbera threw his glove in the air and leapt in the air to chest-bump with Stezzi – and then pitcher and catcher ended up at the bottom of a pile of celebrating players and coaches.

“I think I got a couple cuts from cleats,” Barbera said with a smile. “But it was a great way to end it.”

Eastern 001 000 03 – 4 6 1

St. Augustine 001 000 00 – 1 2 1

WP: Jesse Barbera. LP: James Weston.

2B: E-Ron Silvestro.

HR: SA-Josh Hood.