UNION – Certain programs just have a knack for winning.
That knack is not to be underestimated at all.
To develop that knack takes a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment to excellence.
Once again, the Cranford baseball team displayed all of those characteristics en route to yet another county championship.
Beginning the game with two runs on three hits after only its first four batters stepped to the plate in the top of the first and backed by a combined four-hitter tossed by starter Chris Librera, a sophomore right hander, and senior left-handed reliever Pat Knight, third-seeded Cranford went on to defeat top-seeded Governor Livingston 3-1 in Saturday afternoon’s 62nd annual baseball Union County Tournament championship game at Jim Hynes Class of 1963 field on the campus of Kean University.
Librera gave up only one hit in 3 and 1/3 innings, while Knight induced ground ball double plays to end the fourth, fifth and sixth innings before striking out the side on 13 pitches in the seventh.
“I was told to be ready at any time possibly for long relief,” Knight said. “This feels good because nobody expected us to win, so it’s special to prove all those people wrong.”
Cranford hit safely in all seven innings it came up to bat.
Cranford is now 9-6 in UCT finals and 9-0 in the championship game under 17th-year head coach Dennis McCaffery, the Cougars winning all nine of their county crowns since the first year McCaffery took over as head coach in 1999.
GL – sparked on the mound by senior lefty Ethan Frohman once again, he tossed a complete game – is now 0-5 in the UCT final and 0-4 under head coach Chris Roof. Three of Roof’s four UCT final losses have come to Cranford.
Cranford won its sixth straight and 15th game in its last 16 to improve to 17-3. GL had a three-game winning streak snapped and after having won six of seven fell to 17-5.
The Union County rivals will be right back at it on Tuesday with another championship on the line, that of the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division title.
Cranford is 8-1 in the division and GL 7-2, with Tuesday’s 4 p.m. game in Berkeley Heights the final division game for both.
If Cranford wins, Cranford will win the division outright. Cranford won the division three years in a row from 2011-2013.
If GL wins, then both will finish 8-2 and the schools will share the division crown because they would have split with each other. Scotch Plains is next in the division with three losses at 6-3.
Cranford defeated GL, which has never won the Watchung Division title, 9-2 at home on April 24. Scotch Plains won the UCC’s first Watchung Division title in 2010 and after Cranford won in 2011, 2012 and 2013, Westfield won the crown in 2014.
In Saturday’s UCT final at Kean, Librera only gave up one run, which was earned, on one hit in a 3 and 1/3 innings performance that included four strikeouts, no walks and two hit batters among his 49 pitches.
Librera retired the side in order in the first two innings, did not allow any of the first seven batters he faced to reach base and, including a strikeout where the runner reached first base on a passed ball, retired the first nine batters he pitched to before GL registered its next baserunner.
Cranford took the lead for good immediately when in the top of the first leadoff batter Garrett Forrestal reached on an infield single to second base and was then brought home when Ryan Bakie, who lined a shot down the right field line – just inside the chalk – which went for a standup, RBI-triple, putting the Cougars ahead for good at 1-0.
Two batters later, Cranford junior third baseman Joe Norton brought home Bakie with an important insurance run as his opposite field RBI-single to right made it 2-0.
“We thought that if we could keep it at 2-0 that we would have a good chance to win,” Roof said.
After stranding its first two baserunners at first and third in the third inning, GL finally got on the scoreboard with its only run in the fourth.
GL senior third baseman Ian Lynch led off by getting hit in the back with an off speed pitch. Senior first baseman Mike Falk then lined a shot over the second baseman’s head for an opposite field single to right that was GL’s first of four hits.
With runners on first and second and nobody out, senior right fielder Dan Belfer moved the runners over to second and third with a fine sacrifice bunt a little bit of the way down the third base line.
That’s when McCaffery took out Librera and brought in Knight, who started the game in center field and ran to the pitcher’s mound from his outfield position.
Knight didn’t have immediate success as he hit the first batter he faced, GL senior second baseman Jon Tedesco, which loaded the bases.
Then on a 1-2 pitch and on the sixth offering of the at-bat Knight gave up an RBI-single to center hit by GL freshman shortstop Danny Serratti.
Serratti – who in the top of the fourth made a fine play in the field to keep the game at 2-0 – waited on an off speed pitch that Knight hung high and connected to center to bring in GL’s only run.
“We have two fine freshmen in our starting lineup, including Will Jennings,” Roof said.
However, as soon as GL started to get some momentum, Knight squelched it by getting GL’s next batter, Nick Cocchia, to hit the ball back to him for an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play.
“I really just wanted to throw strikes and not get too hyped up,” said Knight, who threw 55 pitches. “My fastball was a little inconsistent and my curve worked at times. I just tried to bear down as best as I could.”
After Cranford got one more run off Frohman – an RBI-double by Bakie for another two-run lead at 3-1 – for what turned out to be the game’s final scoring in the top of the fifth, GL threatened again in the bottom of the frame.
With one out, senior left fielder Ryan Zucker reached on an infield single to second base. Frohman, now batting from the right side against the lefty Knight, followed with a bloop single to short right-center to put runners on first and second, still with just one out.
GL was set up again, with the run-producing Lynch up at the plate. On a 1-2 count, Knight got Lynch to hit the ball back to him. Knight threw to third and then Cranford third baseman Norton threw to senior first baseman Albert Gargiulo for an inning-ending 1-5-3 double play.
“Good teams make good plays,” Roof said. “We left seven runners on base with those three double plays.”
After Frohman kept the game at 3-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth, for the second time in three innings GL had first and second with nobody out. Falk led off with a double that reached the left field fence on two bounces and then Belfer was walked on a 3-1 count, which was the only base on balls issued by either team.
Knight then got Tedesco to fly out to center, with the runner from second tagging up and advancing to third. With two outs and runners at the corner, Knight got another big ground ball, this one hit to Cranford junior shortstop Mike Smith for an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.
“We just couldn’t get the big hit in the big spot,” Roof said. “I thought the ball that Tedesco hit, he hit it hard. If that ball is hit to either gap, it’s a different story.”
Cranford threatened to add to its lead in the top of the seventh after its first two batters reached base, Mike Smith on a single to left and then senior catcher Liam Duffy on being hit by a pitch. However, in between, Frohman picked off a runner at first base for the inning’s first out and then retired the final two batters he faced in the frame on his ninth and final strikeout and a ground ball to first.
Frohman tossed a 10-hitter in an 81-pitch effort that yielded no walks and one hit batter. He was also the losing pitcher in last year’s title contest when GL, also as the top seed, fell to Westfield 5-3 at Kean.
“Ethan was gritty, resilient, had a lot of heart and kept us in the game like he has so many other times,” Roof said.
GL catcher Rob Dilly was quick with two throws for assists in the third and seventh innings. Dilly threw out a runner attempting to steal second base in the third and picked off a runner at first base in the seventh.
Knight was unhittable in the seventh, striking out all three batters he faced swinging.
“It wasn’t meant to be by us hitting into those three double plays,” Roof said. “You have to tip your cap to Cranford. The names change every year, but they still find a way to win.
“We have a chance on Tuesday to beat them for a share of the division championship, so we’re looking forward to that.”
NOTES: First-year GL assistant coach Dan Mondelli, a 1982 GL graduate, has now coached in UCT finals in four different decades and with three different teams. His first year as an assistant coach at Elizabeth under Ray Korn was in 1987, with the Minutemen reaching the final in 1989, winning it, and then again in 1990, losing it, and in 1991, winning it.
Mondelli was then the head coach at Linden in 2003 when the Tigers reached the final, losing it. His fourth decade is the present one, with him assisting head coach Chris Roof and the GL Highlanders in this year’s title contest.
“The first time we played Cranford we were a little tentative,” Mondelli said. “This time the kids were right there with them until the end.”
Frohman has nothing to be ashamed about as far as being the losing pitcher in two consecutive UCT finals. The last starting pitcher to lose consecutive title games reached the minor league level, that past standout being 1996 Elizabeth graduate Al Hawkins, who lost to Westfield as a sophomore in 1994 and as a junior in 1995. Hawkins also helped lead Elizabeth to the 1994 Group 4 state championship.
Westfield’s Aiden Scanlon was the losing pitcher in the 2009 and 2010 title games, but was not the starting pitcher in 2009, that was Chris Jenkins, who was the losing pitcher in the 2008 game.
GAME-WINNING HIT: Cranford sophomore left fielder Ryan Bakie delivered an opposite field RBI-triple down the right field line to give Cranford a 1-0 advantage and the lead for good just two batters into the game.
AT-BAT(S) OF THE GAME: A one-out triple to left hit by Cranford No. 9 batter, sophomore second baseman Brian Oblachinski, in the top of the fourth and then with two outs an RBI-double to left smashed by Bakie that brought home Oblachinski to give Cranford – very quickly – back its two-run lead at 3-1. It was a huge insurance run that eliminated GL from tying the game with a solo home run.
DEFENSIVE PLAY OF THE GAME: GL freshman shortstop Danny Serretti – in the top of the fourth – dove to his right to snare a hard-hit grounder with a runner on third and two outs. Serretti then got up and threw a fastball to first baseman Mike Falk, who was able to scoop up the low, on-target throw, while keeping his foot on the bag for the final out. The outstanding defensive play kept the score at 2-0 and prevented Cranford from taking a three-run lead. “That’s a 14-year-old kid at shortstop out there making a play like that,” Roof said.
62ND ANNUAL BASEBALL UCT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
3-Cranford (17-3) 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 – 3 10 1
1-GL (17-5) 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 – 1 4 1
WINNING PITCHER: Pat Knight (3-1).
LOSING PITCHER: Ethan Frohman (6-2).
CRANFORD STARTER – Sophomore RH Chris Librera:
3 and 1/3 innings: 1 run-earned, 1 hit, 4 strikeouts (3 swinging-one looking), 0 walks, one hit batter.
First eight pitches he threw were all strikes or foul balls.
Retired side in order in the first and second innings.
Did not allow any of the first seven batters he faced to reach base and, including a strikeout where the runner reached first base on a passed ball, retired the first nine batters he pitched to before GL produced its next baserunner.
Pitch count: 1-9. 2-10. 3-24. 4-6. Total: 49.
CRANFORD RELIEVER – Senior LH Pat Knight (3-1):
3 and 2/3 innings: 0 runs, 3 hits, 4 strikeouts (all swinging), 1 walk.
Knight ended the fourth (1-2-3), fifth (1-5-3) and sixth (6-4-3) innings with ground ball double plays.
Knight then struck out the side in the seventh on 13 pitches to seal the victory.
Pitch count: 4-15. 5-14. 6-13. 7-13. Total: 55.
GL STARTER – Senior LH Ethan Frohman (6-2):
7 innings complete: 3 runs-all earned, 10 hits, 9 strikeouts
(6 swinging, 3 looking), 0 walks, 1 hit batter.
Frohman struck out the side in the first.
Frohman picked off a runner at first in the sixth.
Pitch count: 1-20. 2-7. 3-9. 4-15. 5-9. 6-11. 7-11. Total: 82.
SINGLES: Cranford – Garrett Forrestal (2), Pat Knight (2), Mike Smith (2), Joe Norton. GL – Mike Falk, Danny Serretti, Ryan Zucker.
DOUBLES: Cranford – Ryan Bakie. GL – Mike Falk.
TRIPLES: Cranford – Ryan Bakie, Brian Oblachinski. GL – None.
HOME RUNS: Cranford – None. GL – None.