CRANFORD – Just when it appeared that visiting Nutley was in control with a five-run lead and three innings to go, host Cranford decided that it did not want to see a second straight season end on its home field.
Determined to continue toward the goal of attaining a championship this season, Cranford produced a fifth inning to remember, took the lead for the first time and then remained in front.
So, once again, Cranford finds itself in another sectional championship game.
For the fifth straight year and for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, the Cougars advanced to the North 2, Group 3 championship game after posting a stunning, come-from-behind 8-6 win over Nutley in Tuesday’s baseball semifinal played at Memorial Field.
All nine Cranford batters in its lineup hit safely, with the Cougars producing 12 hits total, including seven that were smoked cleanly in their six-run fifth.
Rutgers-bound senior Anthony Condito, who earlier this season became Nutley’s all-time hits leader, could not be retired by Cranford’s two pitchers. Condito was 1-for-1 with an RBI-double blasted all the way to the bottom of the center field fence that gave the Raiders a 1-0 lead in the top of the third. He was also hit by a pitch three times, including his first, third and fourth times up.
Condito’s last high school at-bat saw him get hit in the backside on the first pitch he saw from Cranford reliever Gordon Graceffo. Cranford was up 7-6 at that time in the top of the sixth, with Condito later stealing second base and then moving to third in the inning, only to be left stranded as the tying run.
Fourth-seeded Cranford won for the third time in a row to improve to 17-10 and will next play at second-seeded Somerville (18-9) in Friday’s 4 p.m. scheduled final. Nutley finished a fine season, overcoming a 0-3 start, at 20-10.
Somerville won its third straight state tournament game by the score of 2-1 on Tuesday, eliminating third-seeded Governor Livingston, which finished with a spectacular 21-10 record that included its first Union County Tournament championship.
After four innings, Cranford was held to just one unearned run on three hits by Nutley starting pitcher, junior right hander John Lawton.
Nutley had just added to its 3-1 lead with three big runs in the top of the fifth. Senior shortstop Andrew Santos drove in the first run with a single to left and then, with two outs, senior left fielder Nick Miller brought home the final two with a shot he hit over the left fielder’s head, good for a two-run, standup double.
Still with nine outs left, Cranford wasted no time getting right back in the game and then taking control of it. Here’s a complete look at the bottom of the fifth, where the game changed for good:
Cranford’s No. 8 batter, freshman Jim Shriner, led off with an opposite field bloop single to right. Innocent enough.
Then No. 9 batter Matt Perino followed with a single up the middle, followed by leadoff batter Joe Norton going the other way to right for his second hit of the game, which loaded the bases with no outs.
Lawton then retired Tom Feeney on a line out to second. Feeney drove in Cranford’s first run with two outs in the bottom of the third, smacking a 3-2 fastball up the middle for an RBI-single.
Lefty-swinging Garrett Forrestal followed with an RBI-single to right field to make the score 6-2, with Cranford loading the bases again with still one out.
At that point Nutley head coach Bob Harbison lifted Lawton in favor of senior right hander Nick Santoriello.
Cranford cleanup batter Mike Smith hit a ball to short that went for a 6-4 fielder’s choice. A third run came in on the play and then a fourth followed when the throw to first for an attempted inning-ending double play was thrown past first baseman Condito.
Lefty-swinging designated hitter Tom Armstrong followed with his second single, this one to center, and then Brian Oblachinski singled to left to load the bases a third time for Cranford in the frame.
Wasting no time swinging the bat, Ryan Bakie jumped on Santoriello’s first pitch and hit it to left field for an RBI-single, pulling Cranford to within 6-5. The bases remained loaded with two outs.
Harbison changed pitchers again, this time putting in senior righty Nick Senatore.
Shriner, up for the second time in the inning, hit a slow roller toward third. The Nutley third baseman decided to field it and threw to first. However, his errant throw got past Condito, with the tying and go-ahead runs coming across the plate for the Cougars.
Just like that and Cranford was now ahead 7-6.
“They saw him (Lawton) enough, so we tried to give a different look and mess with their timing,” Harbison said. “They started to hit the ball where our fielders weren’t. They put the ball in play and don’t strike out too much.”
Senatore struck out Cranford’s next batter to finally end the inning for Nutley.
“Our motto here at Cranford is to try to win every pitch, every inning and every game and that way we become tough to beat,” said Norton, with the senior backstop going 3-for-4, with three singles and two runs. “The third time through the order we got to their pitcher’s fastball.
“One we got going it was easier to hit the ball.”
Cranford added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth when Mike Smith produced his team’s only extra-base hit, a hard-hit double down the left field line that brought home Norton, who was the game’s only player with three hits.
“In the fifth inning we started to hit the ball and got the baserunners we needed,” Smith said. “Once we got rolling the hits continued and it led to a nice win.”
Graceffo, a sophomore who made his first varsity start earlier this year, allowed no runs on no hits in 2 and 1/3 innings of relief, earning the mound victory. Nutley had the tying run at the plate with one out in the top of the seventh before the game’s final two batters flied out to right and grounded out to second.
Condito scored Nutley’s second run as the result of a throwing error, while Miller drove in his team’s third run with an opposite field, bloop RBI-single to right in the fourth that made the score 3-1.
Miller, in his final high school game, was 2-for-3 with a single, double, three RBI and was hit by a pitch.
Condito reached base safely all four times up, scoring twice. He didn’t seem miffed at all that he was hit by a pitch three of his four times up.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Condito said. “You want to get a great player out. Their strategy worked.”
With Nutley leading 6-1 in the fifth, Condito thought things were going his team’s way, but there was still work to be done.
“We were very confident, everyone was, but we never get ahead of ourselves,” Condito said.
This is what Harbison said about the three times Condito was hit: “Cranford didn’t put him on base on purpose. They threw the ball inside and if it hit him it hits him.”
“We would never hit anyone intentionally,” Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery said. “He’s (Condito) a very good player. There’s a reason he’s going to Rutgers and he can be very explosive. It was unfortunate that he was hit the times he was. Look at what he did to the fastball (his RBI-double) that we threw over the middle of the plate.”
Cranford came up with three key defensive plays in the game that prevented Nutley from building a bigger lead.
After Santos led off the second with an opposite field double to right field for Nutley – its first hit – two batters later designated hitter Jake Ramezzana hit a shot back to Cranford starting pitcher Chris Librera, who gave up six runs on eight hits, struck out five, walked one and hit three batters in four and 2/3 innings.
Librera gloved the hard-hit, line drive and then got Santos out in a run down between second and third, the scoring going 1-6.
Feeney, at first base, made a nice grab for a putout in the fourth inning to keep a runner at third and then in the sixth scooped up another ground ball and then raced to first, diving with his glove to get Nutley leadoff batter Matt Butler for the inning’s first out.
Shriner, who has started every game this season for Cranford, also made a nice catch of a foul ball for the final out of the top of the sixth.
Librera struck out the side in the third.
“Chris battled and threw the ball well against a very good hitting team,” McCaffery said.
Graceffo is a likely candidate to start Friday’s game.
“Gordon threw strikes,” McCaffery said.
Cranford finished fourth in the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division with a 4-6 league mark after sharing the crown with GL last year. The defending champion Cougars were then downed by top-seeded Scotch Plains in the UCT semifinals, falling three times in three tries to the SP Raiders.
So winning N2, G3 again is, for the Cougars, hopefully the first of three titles they can win in the states.
“Our season is not over yet,” Norton said.
“The kids just battled by putting the ball in play,” McCaffery said. “We took good swings and found a way.
“We watched Nutley five times and Somerville three times. It’s a credit to the program, the kids, the Little League and the Cranford Baseball and Softball League. The kids continue to put a lot of hard work into this.”
NORTH 2, GROUP 3 BASEBALL SEMIFINAL
AT CRANFORD’S MEMORIAL FIELD
8-Nutley (20-10) 0 0 2 1 3 0 0 – 6 08 2
4-Cranford (17-10) 0 0 1 0 6 1 x – 8 12 4
Sophomore RH Gordon Graceffo (in relief)
Senior RH Nick Santoriello (in relief)
Nutley – Raul Ortega (2), Nick Miller, Pete Lopez, Andrew Santos.
Cranford – Joe Norton (3), Tom Armstrong (2), Tom Feeney,
Jim Shriner, Matt Perino, Garrett Forrestal, Brian Oblachinski, Ryan Bakie.
Nutley – Andrew Santos, Anthony Condito, Nick Miller.
Cranford – Mike Smith.
Nutley – None.
Cranford – None.
Nutley – None.
Cranford – None.
TUESDAY’S STARTING LINEUPS:
23-Matt Butler, senior second baseman
27-Marty Higgins, senior shortstop
15-Anthony Condito, senior first baseman
2-Andrew Connor, senior center field
9-Andrew Santos, senior third baseman
19-Raul Ortega, sophomore catcher
7-Jake Ramezzana, junior designate hitter
20-Nick Miller, senior left fielder
28-Peter Lopez, sophomore right fielder
4-John Lawton, junior RH pitcher (did not bat)
2-Joe Norton, senior catcher
10-Tom Feeney, senior first baseman
4-Garrett Forrestal, senior left fielder
36-Mike Smith, senior shortstop
55-Tom Armstrong, junior designated hitter
35-Brian Oblachinski, junior second baseman
15-Ryan Bakie, junior center fielder
13-Jim Shriner, freshman right fielder
21-Matt Perino, junior third baseman
60-Chris Librera, junior RH pitcher (did not bat)
2016 NORTH 2, GROUP 3 BASEBALL
SEEDS: 1-Mendham. 2-Somerville. 3-Gov. Livingston. 4-Cranford.
5-Summit. 6-Warren Hills. 7-Snyder. 8-Nutley.
9-Carteret. 10-Colonia. 11-Matawan. 12-South Plainfield.
13-Orange. 14-Barringer. 15-Chatham. 16-Voorhees.
Monday, May 23
Mendham 2, Voorhees 1
Nutley 6, Carteret 2
Cranford 12, Orange 1
Matawan 3, Warren Hills 2
Colonia 10, Snyder 0
Tuesday, May 24
South Plainfield 3, Summit 2
Gov. Livingston 15, Barringer 0
Somerville 2, Chatham 1
Friday, May 27
Nutley 10, Mendham 5
Cranford 8, South Plainfield 1
Gov. Livingston 9, Matawan 0
Somerville 2, Colonia 1
Tuesday, May 31
Somerville 2, Gov. Livingston 1
Cranford 8, Nutley 6
Friday, June 3
4-Cranford at 2-Somerville, 4 p.m.
CRANFORD IN NORTH 2, GROUP 3 PLAYOFFS
2016: 4th seed
Final: 4-Cranford at 2-Somerville
2015: top seed
Final: South Plainfield 4, Cranford 2 (8 inn.) – at Cranford
South Plainfield was the third seed.
2014: top seed
Final: Cranford 14, West Essex 4 – at Cranford
West Essex was the third seed.
2013: top seed
Final: Cranford 5, South Plainfield 1 – at Cranford
South Plainfield was the second seed.
2012: top seed
Final: Cranford 7, West Morris 0 – at Cranford
West Morris was the second seed.
2011: 2nd seed
Quarterfinals: Mendham 7, Cranford 3 – at Cranford
Mendham was the 10th seed
2010: 3rd seed
Final: Cranford 9, Morristown 8 (8 inn.) – at Cranford
Morristown was the fifth seed.