SCOTCH PLAINS – In an exciting, attention-grabbing, back-and-forth high school baseball clash that involved three lead changes before the fourth and final one in the bottom of the seventh, two things became clear Monday once the dust settled and late afternoon turned into early evening.
First, Rahway has come a very long way under third-year head coach Brad Edwards. However, the Indians – who are no longer a pushover – still have a ways to go.
Second, Union Catholic continues to be no strangers to wacky games and this time the Vikings found themselves on the winning side of one.
After visiting Rahway came back from two one-run deficits to take a three-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh, host Union Catholic scored four runs with no outs in its final at-bat – on only one hit and only its second of the game total – to stun the Indians 7-6 in a crazy, seesaw, Union County Conference-crossover contest held at Union Catholic High School.
Mountain Division squad Union Catholic won its third straight to improve to 6-2. Rahway, which moved up to the Valley Division this year after winning the Sky Division the past two seasons, fell for the second time in a row to slip to 3-4.
Much-improved Rahway almost defeated a second Mountain Division opponent. Last week the Indians came back from an 8-1 deficit to win at home over 6-0 Summit 9-8 in 10 innings. Summit moved up to the Mountain Division this year after winning the Valley Division last year for the third time in four seasons.
Union Catholic previously lost at Summit 4-3 in nine innings and then three games later fell at Johnson 13-12 in a game that the Vikings produced 14 hits.
On Monday Union Catholic had only two hits, but won this time.
“We were lucky to come away with this victory,” Union Catholic head coach Dr. James Reagan, Jr. said. “We’ve had a couple of games when we didn’t hit the ball, but pulled out wins.”
In his only at-bat, Chris Armstrong was hit by the first pitch thrown to him with the bases loaded, no outs and the score tied 6-6 in the bottom of the seventh. It was a walk-off RBI hit-by-pitch for Armstrong that ended the game.
Union Catholic’s previous three runs in the bottom of the seventh came home on a HBP and consecutive walks.
“We’ve won a lot of games in crazy ways,” Reagan said. “This is one of them. Crazy things happen all the time.
“One run, two runs are nothing in high school baseball.”
The only two hits Union Catholic produced came from senior Sean Valli on a fly ball to center that fell for an RBI-double which gave the Vikings a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning and an opposite field single to left by senior Zachary Sluka as the second batter of the bottom of the seventh.
Union Catholic’s first batter in the seventh, leadoff man Donivyn Cruz, reached on an infield error, Rahway’s second error of the game.
The Indians, who out-hit Cranford 12-2, also had a few baserunning errors that cost them earlier.
“When you have a lead like that in the seventh inning you expect to get three outs,” Edwards said. “We let too many things go and shot ourselves in the foot – losing a fly ball in the outfield that cost us a run – too many times.
“We have to control what we can control. That’s the message to our players.”
Rahway was still resilient enough to overcome 1-0 and 2-1 deficits and even a 3-3 deadlock when Union Catholic’s third run came home – pinch runner Shamar Crawford scoring after he reached second on a wild pitch and stole third – as the result of a balk in the bottom of the sixth.
Rahway junior Jason Winters, who throws left and bats right, started the game on the mound for the Indians and pitched well allowing only two runs in five innings in his first start. Winters also put the Indians in front 5-3 in the top of the seventh when he blasted an opposite field two-run HR on a ball hit past Union Catholic’s right fielder.
On the mound Winters – in a 98-pitch performance – struck out three, walked six, hit a batter and allowed only two runs on just one hit.
“His arm bothered him a little bit, which is why this was his first start,” Edwards said. “He’s a gamer and always goes 100 miles an hour. He’s a fantastic kid and a role model.
“For the long term his return is huge, especially since he’s only a junior. He did everything on the mound we asked of him and he deserved better.”
Union Catholic starter Robert Herron, a senior right hander making his second start, also pitched well. In six complete innings Herron – who threw 90 pitches – allowed three runs on 10 hits, striking five, walking none and hitting one batter.
“Robert deserved to get the win,” Reagan said. “We have a lot of faith in him and all of our pitchers, we go eight deep.”
Getting the win in relief was Union Catholic’s third pitcher, righty Michael Mora, In relief of Brandon Couto, who started the seventh, Mora walked the first batter he faced and then gave up an RBI-single to Rahway junior Jordan Becker that put the Indians ahead 6-3.
Becker led all players with three hits.
After striking out the next batter he faced with the bases loaded for the inning’s second out, up stepped to the plate was Rahway’s No. 9 batter, freshman second baseman Jayson Gonzalez.
Making his first varsity start, Gonzalez had the presence of a senior at the plate. He was hit by a pitch in the third inning and led off the fifth with a double down the left field line.
Gonzalez then blasted a shot to center field off Herron for a two-run single in the sixth to give Rahway its first lead at 3-2.
“We threw him into the fire today,” Edwards said. “He works very, very hard.
“He was part of a nice double play for us against Summit at second base. He showed us good things last summer for an incoming freshman. He’s the future of our middle infield.”
Now with the bases loaded, two outs and Rahway ahead 6-3 in the top of the seventh, Mora had to face Gonzalez for the first time.
In a nail-biting, nine-pitch at-bat, Gonzalez hit the ball hard again and straight, but his line drive fly ball was caught by Cruz in center field for Rahway’s third out.
“We needed an out and I knew he hit the ball hard before,” said Mora, making his second mound appearance this year, both in relief. “I didn’t want to walk anymore batters there with the bases loaded.
“I tried to pound the strike zone and he hit it and fortunately got under it.”
Union Catholic took a 1-0 lead in the fourth on an opposite field sacrifice fly to right hit by senior Matthew Lettieri that scored Valli, who led off the inning with a walk and was on third with the bases loaded and one out.
Rahway answered in the top of the fifth with a sacrifice fly of its own the other way to right hit by Winters that scored Gonzalez.
Union Catholic took a 2-1 lead in the fifth when, with a runner on second and two outs, Valli hit a high fly ball to center that was lost in the sun, falling in the area of the Rahway center fielder and right fielder for an RBI-double.
“Sean is one of the county’s top players,” Reagan said. “He had the game-winning hit for us in wins over Cranford the past two years.”
Rahway’s relief pitchers included senior Radelvis Paulino, who pitched the sixth and into the seventh, and senior David Tobar, who started the game in center field.
Rahway leadoff batter Luis Muller led off the game with an opposite field-triple down the right field line, reached on a bunt single in the third, moved a runner to second with a sacrifice bunt in the fifth and walked to lead off the seventh and scored.
“Fortunately this is only our seventh game in a 25-game season,” said Edwards, a 1992 Rahway graduate who played baseball for the Indians in the early 1990s. “We have some guys with a lot of fight. I know we have a lot of good ball players.
“It’s there. We just need full, sustained efforts.”
Union Catholic’s next game is another conference-crossover at home Tuesday (April 18) vs. Watchung Division leader Governor Livingston. The Highanders improved to 7-0 Monday with a 10-0, five-inning Watchung Division victory over visiting Union.
GL began the week ranked No. 3 in New Jersey behind St. Joseph’s, Montvale and Seton Hall Prep.
“We’re starting to build a nice resume,” Reagan said.
Rahway’s next game is also Tuesday and also a crossover, this time at Sky Division co-leader Hillside, which began the week 4-1 overall.
Last year Union Catholic defeated Rahway 10-2 at home.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-CROSSOVER BASEBALL AT UC
Rahway (3-4) 0 0 0 0 1 2 3 – 6 12 2
Union Catholic (6-2) 0 0 0 1 1 1 4 – 7 2 1
Union Catholic RH Michael Mora (1-0) (in relief)
Rahway senior RH Radelvis Paulino (1-2) (in relief)
Rahway – Jordan Becker (3), Johnathan Torres (2), Kris Houck,
Luis Muller, Seth Holguin, Jayson Gonzalez.
Union Catholic – Zachary Sluka.
Rahway – Jayson Gonzalez.
Union Catholic – Sean Valli.
Rahway – Luis Muller.
Union Catholic – None.
Rahway – Jason Winters.
Union Catholic – None.
2-Luis Muller, junior, left field
8-Jason Winters, junior, LH pitcher-first base
1-David Tobar, senior, center field
7-Andres Garcia, junior, shortstop
3-Johnathan Torres, senior, right field
10-Jordan Becker, junior, catcher
11-David Shepherd, sophomore, third base
13-Kris Houck, senior, first base
5-Jayson Gonzalez, freshman, second base
UNION CATHOLIC VIKINGS:
4-Donivyn Cruz, senior, shortstop
9-Zachary Sluka, senior, center field
7-Sean Valli, senior, left field
23-Robert Herron, senior, RH pitcher
30-Dylan Donahue, sophomore, first base
14-Andrew Kalebota, senior, catcher
13-Matthew Lettieri, senior, right field
10-Josh Ciano, freshman, third base
3-Ryan Reilly, senior, second base