MAHWAH – The winningest baseball team in UnionCounty this season and the last one alive in state tournament play came to within seven outs of playing in OceanCounty for the first time.
Unfortunately for the Dayton Bulldogs, they fell a little short.
North 1, Group 1 champion Ridgefield came back from a four-run deficit and won the game in the bottom of the seventh with a single run with two outs to edge North 2, Group 1 champ Dayton 6-5 in Wednesday’s Group 1 semifinal played at Ramapo College.
It was the third consecutive game that was decided in the bottom of the seventh for Dayton and the second straight for Bergen County squad Ridgefield, which moves on to Saturday’s Group 1 final in Toms River.
As satisfying as Dayton’s walk-off wins were against New Providence and Secaucus at home in the N2, G1 semifinals and final, Wednesday’s defeat was – at that moment – devastating to say the least.
However, Dayton has much to be proud of and a whole lot of success to look back on that was attained during a very special 2014 campaign.
Wednesday ended the best five-year run in program history, with the Bulldogs 95-34 (.736) under fifth-year head coach Mike Abbate. His fifth win next year will be his 100th in a very economical span of time.
Dayton, which finished 24-5, also captured a division title for the third consecutive year and a sectional title for the second straight season – both also program firsts.
Dayton’s 2012 season, a 20-5 campaign, was also ended by Ridgefield, with the home team Royals edging the Bulldogs 3-2 in eight innings in a North 2, Group 1 semifinal.
“We were successful 24 times this year and we have kids coming back next year, but we had nine seniors that grew a lot and won a lot of games the past four years,” Abbate said. “They should be proud of that.”
Those nine seniors include pitcher Tommy Walsh, catcher Joe Iuliano, outfielder Jeff Lau, infielder Drew Farbstein, outfielder Alec Marcantonio, outfielder Ben Steel, Joe Esposito, Matthew Ranieri and Zachary Samansky.
Dayton and Ridgefield played two innings Tuesday at Ramapo before rain halted the game, with the contest having to be played again from the beginning on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Dayton starter Chase Kimmel came out with one out in the fifth. Dayton was ahead 5-3 and Ridgefield had a runner on second when Abbate went to senior right-hander Tommy Walsh.
“I think the two innings Chase threw (on Tuesday) hurt him,” Abbate said. “He was laboring (Wednesday) and threw a lot of pitches.
“Tommy has been good all year and it was a tough situation to put him in. They just happened to hit the ball where our fielders weren’t.”
Walsh gave up three hits in the fifth, but got out of further trouble with the bases loaded and two outs by getting the Ridgefield starting pitcher to ground out to third to keep the game at 5-5.
Walsh then retired Ridgefield in order in the sixth on just six pitches – a strikeout swinging on a 2-2 fastball and two ground outs – with the score remaining 5-5 heading into the seventh.
Dayton had first and second with one out in the top of the seventh, but could not break through, with the next two batters retired by the third Ridgefield hurler.
After Walsh got the second out in the bottom of the seventh following two Ridgefield singles that eventually put runners at second and third, Walsh gave up another single up the middle that ended the game.
Walsh finished a fine season at 10-2, after a junior campaign produced a solid 8-1 record.
When Ridgefield scored four runs in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game at 5-5, the Royals banged out five hits in the inning, three of them doubles.
“They executed with timely hitting,” Abbate said.
After Ridgefield took its first lead at 1-0 in the bottom of the second, Dayton came back with four runs in the top of the third, in an inning that Ridgefield’s starting pitcher threw over 30 pitches.
Dayton’s first run scored as the result of an infield error off a ball hit by junior Mike DePalma. An opposite field RBI-double down the left field line smashed by Joe Iuliano gave Dayton the lead at 2-1.
The next batter, Steel, then drilled a 3-2 fastball over the left fielder’s head for a two-run double.
Unfortunately for Dayton, the Bulldogs were not able to bring Steel home – who was on second base with no outs – and also in the fourth inning the Bulldogs had a runner on second with one out, but couldn’t add to their lead.
Kimmel retired Ridgefield in order in the third and did not allow a run in the fourth after yielding two hits.
Dayton scored its fifth and final run with two outs in the fifth when a late throw by the Ridgefield shortstop to first base allowed the Bulldog runner from third to score. Iuliano opened the inning with a single to center.
“I thought we did a nice job at the plate,” Abbate said. “We’re not five-deep at any position so we have to grind it out.”
Dayton has now established itself as one of the top Group 1 programs in the state, coming much closer this time to advancing to its first-ever state championship game.
In last year’s Group 1 semifinal at William Paterson, Dayton was defeated by PomptonLakes 14-0.
The Bulldogs are getting closer and when they finally do it will be that much sweeter.
NOTES: Before the Dayton-Ridgefield game came to a conclusion, Cranford – UnionCounty’s only other team that was still alive in state tournament play Wednesday – had lost to MountOlive 1-0 in 11 innings in the Group 3 semifinal played at Belleville.
Cranford, hit hard by graduation, came so close to reaching a third straight Group 3 final and fourth in five years. The two-time defending Group 3 state champion Cougars finished 17-7.
DAYTON BASEBALL UNDER HEAD COACH MIKE ABBATE:
2010: (14-12) Union County Conference-Valley Division champions
2012: (20-5) Union County Conference-Mountain Division champions
2013: (20-5) Union County Conference-Mountain Division champions
North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 champions
2014: (24-5) Union County Conference-Mountain Division champions
North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 champions
TOTAL: (95-34, .736)