WAYNE – No moment seems too big for Brian Oblachinski.
Cranford’s senior three-sport standout just goes about his business and gives his all, whether it’s throwing a football, shooting the basketball or – in Tuesday’s case – hitting and fielding the baseball.
With Cranford one out away from not scoring for a fifth straight inning in the top of the eighth, Oblachinski was ready to break that streak. After taking ball one – a fastball away – he expected another.
He got it.
This time Cranford’s leadoff batter smacked a single up the middle, with Matt Perino being waived home from second. Perino slid in safely with the go-ahead run.
Three outs in the bottom of the eighth from relief pitcher Vince Genova, with Oblachinski – from his shortstop position – catching the first out on a pop up and assisting the final out on a ground ball, and Cranford was Toms River bound once again.
Oblachinski, who won a state championship in football his junior year, produced Cranford’s final two hits and three of its last four to help the North 2 champion Cougars get past North 1 champion Pascack Valley 3-2 in Tuesday’s Group 3 semifinal played at William Paterson University’s Jeff Albies Field.
Cranford won for the ninth straight time since falling in the Union County Tournament championship game for the first time since 1998 and improved to 21-7.
Pascack Valley saw its 2017 season come to a conclusion at 22-5.
Oblachinski led all batters with three hits, including a single to center leading off the fifth and an infield single leading off the seventh, beating the throw from shortstop to first base.
After grounding out to the pitcher to lead off the game and then flying out to deep right field in the third, Oblachinski finished 3-for-5 with three singles and the game-winning RBI hit.
Oblachinski knew exactly what he was getting from Pascack Valley’s second relief pitcher, senior right hander Tom Smith, in the eighth.
“The first pitch he threw me was an outside fastball,” said Oblachinski, who will continue playing baseball in college at Montclair State. “I was looking for the same pitch again. I knew right away when I hit it that it was going to go through.”
Perino led off the eighth by walking on a full count. Mike McGee moved him to second with a one-out sacrifice bunt.
That brought up Oblachinski, who entered the game Cranford’s leader in hits with 38.
“This is awesome,” Oblachinski said. “The last three years we came up just short.
“With Cranford baseball there’s a legacy. You’re expected to win and go far.”
After winning the Group 3 state championship three out of four years in 2010, 2012 and 2013, Cranford fell in the Group 3 semifinals in 2014 and 2016 and in between was defeated in the 2015 North 2, Group 3 final.
Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery’s record in group semifinal games is now 7-4, including 7-3 in Group 3.
“What Brian did, that’s Brian,” McCaffery said. “Whether it’s football, basketball or baseball, he’s there to make something happen.”
Cranford scored all three of its runs with two outs. In the top of the third the Cougars scored their first two runs after two outs and nobody on. In that inning all three Cranford hits were to the opposite field. At one stretch Cranford produced five consecutive opposite field hits off Pascack Valley starter Riley Weis.
Both innings Cranford scored began with an empty bases walk – with two outs in the third and no outs in the eighth. The same for Pascack Valley, with one out in the third and fourth.
Cranford had baserunners in all eight at-bats, stranding nine.
Cranford sophomore right fielder Jim Shriner, the game’s only other player with more than one hit, also produced two solid eight-pitch at-bats – staying alive by fouling off pitches. The first one resulted in his first of two opposite field singles to right and the second in a walk.
Shriner was 2-for-3, with two singles, a walk and a run.
Pascack Valley received singles from Justin Martin, Frank Cascio, Jack DeVanna and Alex DeRosa. The Indians, who captured a sectional title for the first time since 1966, had no hits after the fourth and no extra-base hits the entire game.
Cranford junior left fielder Pat Connelly produced the game’s only extra-base hit, which was an opposite field, one-out shot to the left-center gap with one out in the fourth. Connelly was thrown out attempting to steal third.
Also hitting safely for Cranford were Ryan Bakie, Mike Meola, Tom Armstrong and Tyler Szczech. Bakie also made a fine, diving catch to his left for the first out of the bottom of the fifth.
McGee threw out a runner attempting to steal second base to end the bottom of the sixth.
Cranford reached the scoreboard first in the top of the third after McGee and Oblachinski flied out to right. Bakie then walked on four pitches, which was the first base on balls Weis gave up. Shriner followed with his second hit to right field as Bakie moved to third.
After Shriner had an easy steal of second, lefty-swinging sophomore designated hitter Meola came through on a 1-2 pitch with an opposite field RBI-infield single to short. Pascack Valley shortstop Justin Martin did well to dive to his left and get to the ball, limiting Cranford to one run on the play – Bakie scored – as Meola was safe on Martin’s throw to first.
Armstrong, another lefty batter, followed with an opposite field bloop single to left on the first pitch he was offered. In came Shriner to give Cranford a 2-0 advantage.
Pascack Valley came back with single runs in its next two at-bats to get the game even again. In the third, DeVanna drove in his team’s first run with a single to left that plated Weis. In the fourth, Weis again helped his own cause by belting a long fly ball to left that brought home No. 9 batter Alex Criscuolo with the tying run, courtesy of a sacrifice fly.
Cranford had a runner at third with two outs in the sixth and the bases loaded with two outs in the seventh only to see both of those scoreless innings conclude with ground ball outs.
Cranford starter Kevin Donovan pitched quite well, giving up only two runs on four hits in six complete innings. He struck out two, walked five and hit a batter.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t have my control early on,” Donovan said. “We knew that they would put the ball in play and that they were disciplined. We executed.”
Donovan more than gave Cranford a chance to win with his mound performance. In addition to yielding just four singles, he did not allow the Indians to take the lead in a 102-pitch outing.
Donovan’s first big out came in the second when he struck out Criscuolo swinging on a 2-2 off speed pitch to end the frame. Pascack Valley had runners on second and third after a wild pitch.
With a runner on third in the fourth, two outs and Pascack Valley just having tied the game at 2-2, Donovan reared back and got No. 3 batter Frank Cascio to ground out to Perino at third to prevent further damage.
“Kevin battled and was able to get out of a couple of situations,” McCaffery said.
Genova allowed only one baserunner in his two-inning stint. With a runner on second and two outs in the bottom of the eighth, he had to concentrate on getting out Martin, who earlier in the game singled off Donovan.
On a 1-1 pitch Genova got Martin to ground out to Oblachinski at short for the game’s final out.
“No matter what I just wanted to throw strikes,” Genova said. “I treat every batter the same way. If you throw strikes and your fielders field the ball behind you, you’ll be in good shape.”
“Vince has been doing that for three years,” McCaffery said. “He’s very focused.”
So Cranford will now be going to Toms River to play in a state championship game for the sixth time under McCaffery. The Cougars are previously 3-2 in Ocean County since he’s been the head coach, having lost title games there in 2003 and 2007 and won in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Cranford won at Toms River North in 2010, at Toms River South in 2012 and at Toms River East in 2013.
On Saturday the Cougars will play in the 2017 Group 3 state championship game at a Toms River high school vs. the winner of Wednesday’s re-scheduled Group 3 semifinal featuring South Jersey champion Highland (19-6) vs. Central Jersey champ Allentown (24-2) at Rowan College at Gloucester County.
GROUP 3 BASEBALL SEMIFINAL AT WILLIAM PATERSON UNIVERSITY
N2-Cranford (21-7) 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 – 3 10 1
N1-Pascack Valley (22-5) 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 – 2 4 0
Cranford senior RH Vince Genova (4-2)
2 innings complete (in relief), 23 pitches
0 runs, 0 hits, 0 Ks, 0 BB
Retired six of seven batters he faced.
1-2-3 inning: seventh
Pitches: 7-12. 8-11. Total: 23.
CRANFORD STARTING PITCHER:
Sophomore RH Kevin Donovan
6 innings complete, 102 pitches
2 runs (both earned), 4 hits, 2 Ks (both swinging), 5 BBs, 1 HBP
1-2-3 inning: fifth
Retired 7 straight batters from 4th to 6th innings.
Pitches: 1-17-. 2-18-. 3-24. 4-20. 5-8. 6-15. Total: 102
Senior RH Tom Smith (1-2)
1 inning complete (in relief, the 8th), 14 pitches
1 run (earned), 1 hit, 1 K (looking), 1 BB
Pitches: 8-14. Total: 14.
FIRST PASCACK VALLEY RELIEF PITCHER:
Senior RH Nick Verost
1 inning complete (the 7th), 32 pitches
0 runs, 1 hit, 2 Ks (both swinging), 2 BB
Pitches: 7-32. Total: 32.
PASCACK VALLEY STARTING PITCHER:
Senior RH Riley Weis
6 innings complete, 89 pitches
2 runs (both earned), 8 hits, 1 K (swinging), 2 BB, 1 HBP
Pitches: 1-22. 2-9. 3-28. 4-8. 5-15. 6-7. Total: 89.
Cranford – Brian Oblachinski (3), Jim Shriner (2), Ryan Bakie, Mike Meola, Tom Armstrong, Tyler Szczech.
Pascack Valley – Justin Martin, Frank Cascio, Jack DeVanna, Alex DeRosa.
Cranford – Pat Connelly.
Pascack Valley – None.
Cranford – None.
Pascack Valley – None.
Cranford – None.
Pascack Valley – None.
N2-CRANFORD COUGARS (21-7):
35-Brian Oblachinski, senior, shortstop
4-Ryan Bakie, senior, center field
42-James Shriner, sophomore, right field
52-Mike Meola, sophomore, designated hitter
23-Kevin Donovan, sophomore, pitcher (did not bat)
33-Vince Genova, senior, pitcher (did not bat)
55-Tom Armstrong, senior, first base
46-Tyler Szczech, sophomore, second base
36-Matt Perino, senior, third base
11-Pat Connelly, junior, left field
21-Mike McGee, sophomore, catcher
N1-PASCACK VALLEY INDIANS (22-5):
7-Alex DeRosa, junior, center field
25-Riley Weis, senior, pitcher
12-Nick Verost, senior, pitcher (did not bat)
41-Tom Smith, senior, pitcher (did not bat)
5-Frank Cascio, senior, right field
27-Jack DeVanna, senior, catcher
23-Carson Weis, senior, first base
4-Austin Piorkowski, junior, third base
21-Justin Martin, sophomore, shortstop
22-Ricky Lutz, junior, left field
2-Alex Criscuolo, senior, second base