WARREN – Despite playing its fourth game in four days, the Union baseball team was – according to first-year head coach Angel Navarette – “rested and ready to go” when it traveled to Somerset County Saturday to face an improving Watchung Hills squad that had won three in a row after a 1-5 start.
The visiting Farmers were on a bit of a roll as well, seeking a third straight victory and fourth in five games.
Union was coming off a 4-2, 10-inning Union County Conference-Watchung Division victory at Elizabeth on Friday that evened its record at 4-4, while Watchung Hills downed visiting Montgomery 3-1 Thursday to improve to 4-5.
A challenging out-of-county game for both squads turned in one inning, which was the third. That happened to be the only inning both teams made an error in, with Union a bit more sloppy.
After the Farmers took their only lead in the top of the third by scoring two runs of which one was unearned, the Warriors scored four unearned runs after two outs in the bottom of the inning to take the lead for good, going up by three.
Union rallied in the top of the seventh when it scored two runs to pull to within one, but it wasn’t enough as host Watchung Hills hung on to win by a score of 5-4.
Union will take a 4-5 record into Tuesday’s 4 p.m. league game at home against Linden, while Watchung Hills will begin the week at 5-5, reaching .500 for the second time after a season-long four-game winning streak.
The 61st annual Union County Tournament will also be seeded Tuesday.
After Luis Alvarado produced a seeing-eye, RBI-single to center that just found its way past the Watchung Hills shortstop and second baseman and Keith Stone followed with a sacrifice fly RBI to left to put Union ahead 2-1 in the top of the third, the Farmers became a bit unraveled in the bottom of the inning.
Union starting pitcher Brandon Rodriguez (2-1) retired Watchung Hills cleanup batter Justin Howell on a fly ball to left for the second out, keeping runners at first and second, with the lead runner earlier in the inning reaching on an infield error.
Close to getting out of danger and keeping Union in front, the senior right-hander fired a 1-0 fastball to No. 5 batter John Rowe and he smashed it. Rowe’s blast went over the Union left fielder’s head and hit the bottom of the left field fence, driving in Matt Mastrobattista and Anthony Rocchietti with the tying and go-ahead runs.
Watchung Hills wasn’t finished. Soon a 3-2 advantage turned into a 5-2 lead, with the fourth run scoring as the result of an error on a pickoff attempt and the fifth on an RBI-single to left by Derek Lamble after an outfield error.
“We played terrible today,” Navarette said. “We were flat. We have to stay away from the big inning. That has cost us all year.”
Union needed to match Watchung Hills’ four-run inning by scoring four runs in the top of the seventh to take the lead again. The Farmers came close.
Banging out his second single to begin the inning was No. 9 batter Jake Pittus, who went 2-for-3, with a run. Leadoff batter Will Sangster followed with a single to center and then pinch hitter Justin Hernandez reached base on an infield single to third that loaded the bases with nobody out.
This was all be done against righty relief pitcher Ross Sylvestri after starter Brian Reiss, a sophomore lefty, allowed just two runs on six hits in six innings complete.
Sylvestri then walked Jonathan Brignoni on a full count which pulled Union to within 5-3. Lefty-swinging cleanup batter Matt Meola followed with a hard-hit single to right that made it 5-4 and kept the bases loaded with still nobody out.
Watchung Hills first-year skipper Joe Tremarco took out Sylvestri and replaced him with right-hander Matt Burman.
Falling behind Alvarado immediately at 2-0, Burman challenged the Union catcher with a fastball. Getting the green light to swing away, Alvarado hit a hard line drive. Unfortunately for the Farmers, it was right at Watchung Hills first baseman Rocchietti for the first out.
Burman then retired the next two batters on a strikeout and pop up to second to preserve the victory and earn a save in relief.
“If the kid hits the ball 2-3 inches higher it goes over our first baseman’s head and it’s a different game,” Tremarco said of the Alvarado at-bat.
“We just didn’t play well, defensively or mentally,” Navaratte said. “We got beat by a better team today.”
Reiss improved to 2-1, striking out three and walking three in a 73-pitch effort that included baserunners in all six innings he threw. He retired the last batter he faced on an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play in the sixth.
“Our philosophy is pitching and defense and lately we’ve also been getting some timely hits,” Tremarco said. “Brian looked good for his second outing in a row; he beat an undefeated Ridge team (6-3) Monday (at home).”
Howell drove in leadoff batter Chris Roth with a sacrifice fly RBI to left to give Watchung Hills a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first.
Rocchietti, Rowe and Lamble all went 2-for-3 for the Warriors, who banged out 10 hits. Rocchietti scored a run, Rowe drove in two and scored one and Lamble had one RBI.
Union also produced 10 hits, all of them singles, with Meola joining Pittus with two. Meola was 2-for-3, with two singles, a walk and one RBI.
In four innings complete, Rodriguez allowed five runs – of which only one was earned – on six hits. He did not strike out a batter or walk a batter, but hit one in a 69-pitch effort.
“Brandon has pitched great this year, except for today,” Navarette said. “He didn’t battle.”
Junior righty Jeffery Lara, who started out as Union’s designated hitter, pitched scoreless fifth and sixth innings, giving up four hits and not striking out a batter or walking one.
UNION (4-5) 0 0 2 0 0 0 2 – 4 10 3
WATCHUNG HILLS (5-5) 1 0 4 0 0 0 x – 5 10 1
WINNING PITCHER: Brian Reiss (2-1).
LOSING PITCHER: Brandon Rodriguez (2-1).
SINGLES: Union – Brandon Rodriguez, Keith Stone, Chris Ortiz, Luis Alvarado, Jake Pittus (2), Matt Meola (2), Will Sangster, Justin Hernandez. Watchung Hills – Chris Roth, Anthony Rocchietti (2), John Rowe, Derek Lamble (2), Jimmy DiGiorgio, Jake Wilinsky.
DOUBLES: Union – None. Watchung Hills – John Rowe, Justin Howell.
TRIPLES: Union – None. Watchung Hills – None.
HOME RUNS: Union – None. Watchung Hills – None.