This looking back story comes under the famous Yogi Berra cliché of: “it ain’t over ’till it’s over.’
That’s the beauty of baseball. Unlike football, basketball, hockey and soccer there is no clock that ultimately determines the conclusion of those sporting events.
In high school baseball you have to get 21 outs. When taking a lead into the seventh inning, you have to get the final three while maintaining your advantage to come out on top.
On Monday afternoon, April 23, 2007 visiting Westfield took a seven-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh at Elizabeth’s Williams Field and with one of its best pitchers on the mound – RH starter Evan Shapiro, who sought a 4-0 record to begin his junior season – the defending Union County Tournament champion Blue Devils looked like a strong bet to improve to 9-1.
However, Westfield did not get the final three outs it needed.
The Blue Devils didn’t even get one.
In an unlikely turn of events, Elizabeth produced a crazy, 11-run bottom of the seventh to prevail 12-8 and improve to 9-2. The game ended on a walk-off, grand slam home run smashed over the left field fence by leadoff batter Alvin Valerio, Elizabeth’s designated hitter that day.
Elizabeth head coach Ray Korn, nearing the end of a long and highly-successful coaching career at not only Elizabeth but before that at his high school alma mater Roselle Catholic, was a combination of happy and realistically stunned moments after the game-winning hit was delivered.
Korn told me that day that he could not remember a comeback in that fashion in some time.
Korn would go on to win his 600th game that season and the next year in 2008, which would be his last at Elizabeth, he would lead the Minutemen to one more UCT championship.
Westfield head coach Bob Brewster, now in his 35th season at the helm of the Blue Devils and nearing 600 wins, was left practically speechless – perhaps a first – at game’s end. Always a coach to give a reporter the respect of a quality post-game interview – win or lose – this time before I approached him I remembered him standing in front of his team’s dugout as he uttered – not once, but twice – the adjective “unbelievable.”
Brewster was in his 25th season that year and had a pretty good team once again, despite the usual losses to graduation, including future pro Mike Murray Jr. – now the head coach at St. Joseph’s, Metuchen.
At a game earlier this year I showed Brewster my scorebook that included that game’s scoring from a decade ago. It took him a moment, but then he remembered the game. When I showed him the Westfield lineup he penciled in that day, he went down the names, recalling practically what each kid is doing now.
Unfortunately, catcher Justin Olsen passed away three years ago at the age of 24. Olsen, like Murray Jr. before him who starred at Wake Forest, also went on to play Division 1 baseball and did so at Rutgers.
This was one of 24 Union County games I covered that season, which saw Cranford win the UCT for the first time since 2003 and then after winning North 2, Group 3 again and coming from behind to beat Montville 12-10 in a wild Group 3 semifinal – also played at Williams Field – the Cougars were stopped in the Group 3 final by Seneca 5-2 at Toms River South.
Here’s a look back at the bottom of the seventh inning of Elizabeth’s come-from-behind 12-8 Watchung Conference home win over Westfield 10 years ago – April 23, 2007:
Justin Olsen and Evan Shapiro each belted a single and a double, with Shapiro driving in two runs and scoring once and Olsen scoring twice, as Westfield knocked out Elizabeth starter Manny Lastre en route to an 8-1 lead. Lastre ended up coming back in the game and ended up earning the mound victory.
What made the comeback victory even more special and unique for Elizabeth was that the Minutemen rallied to tie the game at 8-8 after scoring single runs in seven consecutive at-bats.
Elizabeth’s No. 9 batter, second baseman Jon Jiminez, led off the bottom of the seventh with a single. Alvin Valerio, already 1-for-3 on the day with a single, hits another single to make it first and second. Angelo Matin then batted for Xavier Ysabel – he previously pinch ran for him in the fifth – and walked to load the bases.
Roberto Ramos made the score 8-2 when he produced an RBI-single on a 2-0 count. Cleanup batter Kelvin Valerio, Alvin’s older brother, followed with an RBI-single of his own on the first pitch Shapiro offered. Valerio – one of the top senior hitters in Union County that season and also a solid glove at third base – was 3-for-4 with three singles, a line drive out to left, two runs and one RBI. His final hit of the afternoon made the score 8-3.
Junior Liveny followed in the order with a bases-loaded walk for an RBI to make it 8-4. A single by Gio Caraballo, who as a senior in 13 months would be the winning pitcher in the 2008 UCT final over Westfield at Williams Field, drove in a run with a single to pull the Minutemen to within 8-5 as the bases remained loaded.
Jean Caro then drove in a run with a single to make it 8-6. Sammy Rosario’s at-bat that followed resulted in an error on a fielder’s choice attempt at the plate, with the score now 8-7 and the bases loaded again.
Jiminez, up for the second time in the inning, walked on a 3-1 count for an RBI that saw Elizabeth tie the game at 8-8.
Now Alvin Valerio was up for the second time in the inning, while he was also the eighth consecutive Elizabeth batter stepping to the plate with the bases full.
On a 2-0 offering thrown by a Westfield relief pitcher – Brewster kept Shapiro in just long enough to take him out so that he could not be the losing pitcher – Alvin Valerio crushed a ball that cleared the left field fence and headed toward an entrance door to the nearby McDonald’s.
In the bottom of the seventh, Elizabeth scored 11 runs on seven hits (six singles and the game’s only home run), while Westfield committed one error and Westfield pitchers walked three.
This was not a weak team that Elizabeth came back against. This was a quality, conference arch rival, with Westfield with a record of 8-1 before first pitch and Elizabeth 8-2.
It was a comeback worthy of remembrance 10 years later.
I was glad to have been there to cover it.
Lastre, a junior left hander, improved to 3-0 in what was his fourth start that season.
Elizabeth went ahead 1-0 in the second on a 6-3 groundout RBI by Caraballo.
Westfield scored the game’s next eight runs, plating four in the fourth, one in the fifth, one in the sixth and two more in the seventh. Shapiro had an RBI-single and Pete Antonelli a two-run triple in the fourth.
Shapiro drove in a run with a double in the fifth, Mike Cappiello led off the sixth with a single and scored and leadoff batter Tom Bonard drove in Westfield’s final two runs with a two-run double in the seventh.
Pitch counts for the starters that day? Shapiro threw 77 in the first six innings, with a high of 19 in the second inning. Lastre’s was at 58 when Korn lifted him in the fourth. Following two Elizabeth relief pitchers by taking the mound again in the seventh, Lastre finished that inning by throwing 12 more.
Elizabeth finished with 13 hits and Westfield with 10.
Johnson head coach Dave Kennedy, now in his 10th year at the helm of the Crusaders, was in his final year as Korn’s assistant coach that season.
“That was some game,” Kennedy recently recalled. “I remember it and what I remember the most is that all of the hits we got in that seventh inning were hit really hard.”
Here are the lineups from that day – Monday, April 23, 2007:
WESTFIELD BLUE DEVILS (began that day 8-1):
9-Tom Bonard, shortstop, (lefty batter), 3-for-5, with a walk, two doubles, a single and two RBI
4-Kevin Hennessey, second baseman, 0-for-5
23-Justin Olsen, catcher, 2-for-3, with a walk, a double, a single, a stolen base and two runs,
he was pinch ran for following his sixth inning walk
21-Joe Vall-Llobera, right fielder, 1-for-4, with a single and one run
18-Evan Shapiro, pitcher, 2-for-3, with a single, a double, a walk, two RBI and one run
22-Mike Venezia, third baseman, 0-for-3, with a walk
10-Peter Antonelli, left fielder, 1-for-2, with a triple, two walks and two runs
17-Dan Melillo, designated hitter, 0-for-2, with two walks and one run
24-Sean Ferro, center fielder, (did not bat)
8-Mike Cappiello, first baseman, (lefty batter), 1-for-2, with a sacrifice bunt, a single and one run
ELIZABETH MINUTEMEN (began that day 8-2):
15-Alvin Valerio, designated hitter, 3-for-5, with two singles, a grand slam home run, two runs and four RBI
he produced the game-winning hit, which was also the game’s only home run
1-Xavier Ysabel, center fielder, 0-for-1, with a sacrifice bunt and a walk
Angelo Matin, walk and a run
6-Manny Lastre, pitcher, (did not bat)
7-Roberto Ramos, shortstop, 2-for-4, with a double, a single, an RBI and one run
20-Kelvin Valerio, third baseman, 3-for-4, with three singles, two runs and an RBI
17-Junior Liveny, catcher, (lefty batter), 1-for-3, with a double, a walk, a run and an RBI
11-Gio Caraballo, left fielder, 2-for-4, with two singles and one run
21-Jean Caro, first baseman, 1-for-3, with a walk, and a single
Ken Russell ran for him in the seventh and scored.
12-Sammy Rosario, right fielder, 0-for-3, with a walk and a run
4-Jon Jiminez, second baseman, 1-for-3, with a single, a walk, two runs and an RBI