UNION – To steal a line from Andy Williams: “Where do I begin?”
Saturday’s baseball Union County Tournament semifinals at Kean University were filled with such intense drama that it seemed like a book could be written about any pitch or play you want to talk about.
Here are the immediate, irrefutable, easy-to-digest facts.
It will be third-seeded Governor Livingston (15-7) vs. top-seeded Scotch Plains (14-8) in Sunday’s 63rd annual baseball UCT championship game.
In Saturday’s semifinals at Kean it was top-seeded Scotch Plains coming back twice to oust fourth-seeded and defending champion Cranford 8-5 before third-seeded GL found a way to win in extra innings after giving up a two-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, topping second-seeded Westfield 4-3 in nine.
First pitch at Kean University’s Jim Hynes Stadium in Union is scheduled for roughly 2 p.m., following the 11 a.m. junior varsity UCT championship game between second-seeded GL and top-seeded Westfield.
Before explanations are in order pertaining to both semifinal thrillers, here are some tidbits to pick up on:
*Winning teams Scotch Plains and GL both successfully executed their first suicide squeeze attempts, Scotch Plains pulling to within 3-2 of Cranford in the bottom of the second behind a bunt hit toward third by Jake Canavan that scored George Leichtling and GL taking a 3-1 lead in the top of the seventh over Westfield when Brian Cranston bunted the ball toward first base to drive in Will Jennings with what turned out to be a huge insurance run. GL failed on its second squeeze attempt in the top of the ninth, but ultimately survived the missed opportunity.
*GL, with 0 UCT titles, took out Westfield, with the most titles at 14, to reach the championship game for the third straight season. GL is 0-5 in the final, with the only team to ever lose three straight finals being Westfield when the Blue Devils lost to Elizabeth in 2008, Scotch Plains in 2009 and to Cranford in 2010. GL lost to Westfield in the 2014 final and to Cranford in the 2015 title game. This is the first time GL is playing Scotch Plains in the final. GL reached its first final 20 years ago, falling to Westfield in the 1996 title game, which was the third of a record four straight years that Westfield won the crown (1994-1997).
*Westfield had an 18-game, school-record winning streak snapped, falling to 18-4. The Blue Devils won 18 straight after a 0-3 start, with win No. 18 coming at home Thursday against conference-crossover foe Dayton 5-4. Westield needed two runs in the bottom of the seventh vs. the visiting Bulldogs to set the mark. According to head coach Bob Brewster, at the helm of the Blue Devils since 1983, Westfield had 17-game winning streaks in 1995, 2012 and 2014 – all of them ending with state tournament setbacks.
*GL was swept by Westfield in Union County Conference-Watchung Division play, losing at Westfield 6-0 April 15 and then 13-0 at home on May 5. GL was also swept by Scotch Plains in UCC-Watchung play, falling 17-7 at Scotch Plains on April 6 and then 3-1 at home on April 19. So on Sunday, for a second straight day, GL will attempt to beat a team it was defeated by twice in two tries this season.
*Scotch Plains, which began its season at 4-0 and with division wins over Westfield, Cranford, GL and Union, came into Saturday’s game riding a four-game losing streak that saw the Raiders outscored 33-10 and shut out in their last two games. “We played badly and didn’t compete that well at all in any of those games,” Scotch Plains head coach Joe Higgins said.
*The semifinals were originally scheduled to be played May 1 at Kean and then the final on May 14 at Kean, with an unusual 13-day wait in between. However, because of the semifinals being rained out on May 1 and then again on May 7 at Elizabeth (Kean was not available last weekend), the semifinals and final are being contested – instead – with a 0-day wait, on back-to-back days for the first time.
In the first game, Scotch Plains overcame deficits of 3-0 and then 5-3 to reach the final for the first time since last winning the UCT in 2009. The Raiders have won the UCT four times, the first three times in 1969, 1976 and 2004.
Cranford, which had the first three batters of the day reach base on singles – the last two on bunt singles – to give the Cougars bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the first of the opening game, scored its five runs on three ground outs, a wild pitch and a throwing error. Driving in two of the runs on ground outs was No. 5 batter, junior Ryan Bakie, who also banged out Cranford’s only extra-base hit, an opposite field shot to right field that went for a standup triple with two outs in the top of the seventh.
Scotch Plains got on the scoreboard first in the bottom of the second after cleanup batter Matt Fox drilled an opposite field double to right-center and then designated hitter Tyler O’Brien drove him home with an RBI-single to left. The squeeze run that followed made it 3-2.
Scotch Plains tied the game at 3-3 in the bottom of the third on an opposite field RBI-double to right-center smacked by George Leichtling.
The Raiders tied the game again at 5-5 in the bottom of the fifth when George Mueller connected on a two-run double to center with runners on first and third with two outs. Then pinch-hitter Anthony DiNizo came through with an RBI-single up the middle to give the Raiders their first advantage and the lead for good at 6-5.
“I was looking to hit it through the zone,” DiNizo, a sophomore, said. “It’s hard to come off the bench and hit a fastball, but I just took a couple of deep breaths to help with the situation. I was able to hit a fastball right back up the middle.”
“Anthony only had about 15 at-bats so far this season coming in,” Higgins said. “He’s tough as nails and has had some huge at-bats for us.”
Scotch Plains produced two insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth, with No. 3 batter Peter Yarem delivering an RBI-triple with his shot going over the center fielder’s head. Yarem then scored on an RBI sacrifice fly to center hit by Fox.
O’Brien was 3-for-4 with three singles, one an infield single, and an RBI.
It’s very difficult to beat a team, no less a quality team, three times in three tries, but that’s what Scotch Plains did this year to defending UCT champion Cranford, which had a two-game winning streak snapped and fell to 13-8. The Raiders previously swept the Cougars in UCC-Watchung play, winning 7-0 at Scotch Plains on April 5 and then 10-1 at Cranford on May 3.
“Our kids were more confident after the first inning,” Higgins said.
Junior lefty Tim Geissel, in relief of starter Jake DeFouw, a senior right hander, earned the mound victory. He allowed no runs on two hits, while striking out three and walking none. Geissel threw 36 pitches.
“Not a lot affects Tim,” Higgins said. “He leads the team in appearances. He has ice in his veins and it showed today. He was unflappable.”
There were no extra-base hits in the GL-Westfield game. GL went from being one strike away on three consecutive batters in the bottom of the seventh from winning the game before extra innings to then having to get Westfield out in the bottom of the eighth without giving up a run, then find a way to score in the top of the ninth and then get Westfield out again in the bottom of the ninth to finally win the game.
That’s what happened.
Winning streaks and previous wins over your opponent for that day don’t really mean a lot, especially in baseball, a pitcher’s sport.
Junior left hander Nick Cocchia pitched well for GL, giving up just two runs in six innings, plus one batter. Even though first relief pitcher, junior right hander Cole Schneider, gave up Westfield’s third run, he was good enough to keep the game tied at 3-3 and still give his team a chance to win in extra innings.
GL survived hitting batters three times in the sixth, once in the seventh and once in the eighth.
“We just couldn’t get the big hit,” Westfield head coach Bob Brewster said. “Give GL credit. Their pitchers were good.”
GL’s strategy, according to head coach Chris Roof, was to pitch Westfield inside and try to jam them as much as possible.
“After playing them we thought we could prevent them from really getting around on the ball by pitching them inside,” Roof said. “If they were able to still get around on our pitches, then we tip our cap to them.”
GL took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second on an opposite field RBI-single to left hit by Will Jennings.
The Highlanders made it 2-0 in the top of the fifth when leadoff batter Josh Katz drove in a run with a single up the middle.
Westfield finally got on the board in the bottom of the sixth when Kobi Wolf reached on an infield single with runners on second and third and two outs. It was a close play at first as it appeared he just beat out a throw from third on a slow roller.
After GL produced the insurance run in the top of the seventh that made it 3-1, the bottom of the seventh was classic nailbiting time in a do-or-die baseball game that should be remembered for some time.
Here’s how the bottom of the seventh unfolded: Bobby Abbott, Westfield’s No. 9 batter, singled up the middle on the first pitch thrown by Cocchia. It was also his last, with Roof going to Schneider.
Leadoff batter J Mack Rembisz grounded out to Schneider, with Abbott moving to second. Schneider then hit a Westfield pinch hitter in the foot, with that baserunner lifted for a pinch runner. Now it’s first and second and one out.
Standout senior and Holy Cross-bound Chris Rinaldi fouled out to first on the seventh pitch of his at-bat, with Westfield now down to its final out. Then cleanup batter Matt Barmakian produced an at-bat to remember for a long time.
Barmakian fouled off five pitches in a 10-pitch at-bat that saw his team one strike away from losing on more than one occasion. Then Barmakian actually struck out.
However, the ball was not cleanly caught by the GL catcher, with his throw to first base not being cleanly handled by the GL first baseman. Barmakian was safe at first and now the bases were loaded with two outs.
Although Roof argued runner’s interference, Barmakian was in the correct path to first base and not out of the runner’s box.
Next up was Victor Cruz, who was even in the count at 2-2 and had also fouled another pitch off. Again, Westfield is one strike away from losing or GL is one strike away from winning – however, you want to put it.
Then, before you know it, Schneider gets called for a balk, with the second Westfield run crossing home plate. Now it’s 3-2 GL, with runners on second and third.
On a full count and on the eighth pitch of the Cruz at-bat, Schneider walked him, loading the bases again.
Schneider then walked Wolf on another full count, with the third Westfield run crossing the plate. The game is now tied for the first time at 3-3 and Wolf had his second RBI.
To his credit, Schneider kept on battling and was able to retire J.D. Marner on a ground out to him, with Schneider moving to his right to glove the ball and then throw to first. His low throw was nicely scooped up by GL first baseman Matt Bruno and off we went to extra innings.
GL was retired 1-2-3 in the top of the eighth by Westfield sophomore lefty Cory Hiltz. Westfield then came back with first and second and two outs before GL’s third pitcher, senior righty Brian Cranston, retired Rinaldi on a ground out to third. GL third baseman Drew Compton made a nice scoop and throw and then the GL first baseman made a nifty stretch to keep his foot on the bag.
The Highlanders then managed the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the ninth after Cocchia’s second hit, a line drive single by Tyler McCulloch and a walk to Will Jennings on a full count of another 10-pitch at-bat the game saw.
Hiltz then retired GL’s next two batters before Katz came through with his second run-scoring single of the afternoon.
“This was such an intense and aggressive game,” Katz said. “They beat us twice and it’s not easy to beat a team three times.”
Katz hit Hiltz’s second offering, a single to left that brought home the go-ahead and, eventually, winning run.
“On the first pitch I wanted a fastball, but he threw me a curve,” Katz said. “The second pitch was a fastball right there in my zone. Coach Roof says to just breathe, so I took a deep breath and the rest is history.”
Cranston retired Westfield 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth on just seven pitches to clinch GL’s ninth UCT win in the past three seasons.
“After Westfield tied the game in the bottom of the seventh we were still confident and ready to go in the eighth (inning),” Cranston said. “Westfield is a great team and there were some crazy moments there.
“We didn’t dwell on what Westfield did. It took all of our effort to win this game.”
Cranston and Katz – senior captains along with Matt Bruno – played big roles in helping lead GL to last year’s Group 2 state championship, the program’s third.
“They were both in Toms River last year and our other players take their lead from them,” Roof said.
Both Higgins and Roof agree it’s a good thing to be playing the championship game the very next day.
“We went from not playing that well to coming back and winning this game, so we’re ready to go,” Higgins said.
“We would definitely rather play tomorrow (the next day) than wait a week, even if it means not having our pitching quite set,” Roof said. “Baseball is such a game of emotions. Our kids are fired up and will be ready to try to beat another team we lost to twice.
“This was a great baseball game, obviously better for us because we won, and this also takes years off your (baseball) life.
“We’re going to go out tomorrow and just play and the better team will win.”
FIRST UCT BASEBALL SEMIFINAL AT KEAN UNIVERSITY
4-Cranford (13-8) 3 0 0 0 2 0 0 – 5 09 1
1-Scotch Plains (14-8) 0 2 1 0 1 2 x – 8 11 1
WINNING PITCHER: Tim Geissel, junior LH
LOSING PITCHER: Gordon Graceffo, sophomore RH
GAME-WINNING HIT: RBI-single up the middle by pinch hitter Anthony DiNizo to make the score 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. It was Scotch Plains’ first lead.
Cranford – Jim Shriner (2), Joe Norton, Brian Oblachinski (bunt),
Garrett Forrestal (bunt), Tom Feeney, Mike Smith, Tom Armstrong (bunt).
Scotch Plains – Tyler O’Brien (3, one an infield), Jake Canavan (bunt), Colin McAlindin, Anthony DiNizo,
Cranford – None.
Scotch Plains – Matt Fox, George Leichtling, Peter Yarem, George Mueller.
Cranford – Ryan Bakie.
Scotch Plains – Peter Yarem.
Cranford – None.
Scotch Plains – None.
SECOND UCT BASEBALL SEMIFINAL AT KEAN UNIVERSITY
3-Gov. Livingston (15-7) 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 0 1 – 4 8 1
2-Westfield (18-4) 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 – 3 6 2
WINNING PITCHER: Brian Cranston, senior RH
LOSING PITCHER: Cory Hiltz, sophomore LH
GAME-WINNING HIT: RBI-single to left field by leadoff batter Josh Katz with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth, giving GL’s its second and final winning lead of 4-3.
Gov. Livingston – Josh Katz (2), Nick Cocchia (2), Will Jennings (2), Tyler McCulloch (2).
Westfield – Bobby Abbott (2), Chris Rinaldi, Matt Barmakian, Kobi Wolf, Jacob Kurstedt.
Gov. Livingston – None.
Westfield – None.
Gov. Livingston – None.
Westfield – None.
Gov. Livingston – None.
Westfield – None.
SATURDAY’S STARTING LINEUPS:
2-Joe Norton, catcher, senior
35-Brian Oblachinski, second base, junior
4-Garrett Forrestal, left field, senior
36-Mike Smith, shortstop, senior
15-Ryan Bakie, center field, junior
55-Tom Armstrong, designated hitter, junior
21-Matt Perrino, third base, junior
10-Tom Feeney, first base, senior
13-Jim Shriner, right field, freshman
60-Chris Librera, pitcher, junior (did not bat)
1-SCOTCH PLAINS RAIDERS:
20-Peter Warren, shortstop, junior
18-Colin McAlindin, right field, junior
25-Peter Yarem, catcher, junior
6-Matt Fox, first base, junior
5-Tyler O’Brien, designated hitter, senior
15-George Leichtling, center field, senior
7-George Mueller, third base, junior
34 Sam Schetelich, second base, sophomore
9-Jake Canavan, left field, junior
21-Jack DeFouw, pitcher, senior (did not bat)
3-GOV. LIVINGSTON HIGHLANDERS:
3-Josh Katz, center field, senior
25-Jace Tweeten, designated hitter, junior
2-Drew Compton, third base, freshman
10-Dan Baroff, catcher, junior
30-Nick Cocchia, pitcher, junior
13-Tyler McCulloch, left field, sophomore
26-Will Jennings, right field, sophomore
23-Matt Bruno, first base, senior
12-Brian Cranston, second base, senior
21-Vin Doren, shortstop, junior (did not bat)
2-WESTFIELD BLUE DEVILS:
17-J Mack Rembisz, center field, senior
1-Jacob Kurstedt, left field, senior
12-Chris Rinaldi, shortstop, senior
24-Matt Barmakian, third base, senior
21-Victor Cruz, first base, junior
15-Kobi Wolf, designated hitter, junior
7-J.D. Marner, right field, senior
11-Devin Anderson, catcher, senior
8-Bobby Abbott, second base, senior
6-Alex Pansini, pitcher, junior (did not bat)