CRANFORD – After the way Westfield is playing right now it’s hard to believe that the Blue Devils were 4-7 after its April 23 game at North Brunswick’s Community Park.
Westfield wasted no time establishing itself vs. Johnson Saturday, scoring five runs on four hits before making an out.
The Blue Devils, also sparked by a nine-run, nine-hit fourth inning barrage, were more than decisive in defeating the Crusaders 15-4 in Saturday’s 64th annual baseball Union County Tournament semifinals.
The semis were played for the first time at Memorial Field’s new field turf complex.
Fourth-seeded Westfield, which received home runs from Kobi Wolf, James Friel and Jake Lerie off three different pitchers, improved to 11-7 with its seventh straight victory. The Blue Devils have scored at least eight runs in six of those games, at least 11 in five and have a total of 76 in that span.
Westfield did not reach double digit scoring in any game this year until this recent power surge.
Westfield reached the final for the first time since 2014, which was the last year the Blue Devils won the crown. Westfield has won the most titles with 14, while head coach Bob Brewster – in his 35th season at the helm of the Blue Devils – has led them to their last 10.
Ninth-seeded Johnson, which knocked off top-seeded and defending champion Governor Livingston 9-5 in Wednesday’s quarterfinal in Berkeley Heights – GL was also 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state – fell to 9-8.
The Crusaders were seeking to reach the final for the first time since 2002. Johnson’s only title came in 1980.
Johnson entered Saturday’s UCT semifinal winners of eight of its last nine, with a 10-run average over those contests.
The Crusaders have now reached the semifinals under 10-year head coach Dave Kennedy three times, with losses to Westfield in two of them.
After Westfield starter Connor Scanlon set Johnson down without a run or hit in the top of the first, Westfield went right to work against Crusader starter Anthony Caldiero.
Leadoff batter Alex Pansini, who went 3-for-4, banged out the first of his three singles the opposite way to right. Lefty-batting Matt LaCorte followed with a single to right. Lerie walked to load the bases with nobody out.
Cleanup batter and lefty-swinging Chris Wagner, who in the first round at home against Dayton Monday crushed his first varsity home run, produced an opposite field two-run double to left that put Westfield in front for good at 2-0.
Wolf, on an 0-1 fastball, followed with a three-run homer over the 305-foot left fence.
“The pitch was inside and I took kind of an uppercut swing,” Wolf said. “I wasn’t sure if it was going out right off the bat.”
To Johnson’s credit the Crusaders got the game to 6-3 in the top of the fourth, taking advantage of a Westfield error.
However, the Blue Devils hit Johnson relief pitchers Joe Turek and Pat Grady hard in the fourth inning, with Friel blasting a two-run homer to make it 11-3 and Lerie a two-run shot to put Westfield in front 15-3.
“We knew Johnson was a good offensive team,” Friel said. “We just took the same approach – to score runs. We started off slow this year, but now we’re meshing and have pretty good chemistry.”
For Wolf it was his second home run of the season and second on varsity. His first was in Westfield’s season-opening 9-3 loss at Scotch Plains.
Wolf also walked with the bases loaded to tie last year’s UCT semifinal against GL, which was an eventual 4-3 Westfield loss in nine innings, snapping a school-record 18-game Blue Devils winning streak.
“We were good last year and that loss was tough,” Wolf said. “Right now we’re very confident going into the final.”
For Friel it was his first varsity home run. For Lerie it was his second and second of the season. His first was in Westfield’s 12-2 quarterfinal win at home over Rahway Wednesday.
Brewster has been impressed with his team’s offensive output of late, but not surprised.
“Wow, is a good description,” Brewster said. “Here we scored 15 runs in just four at-bats. The kids have been more selective and gaining confidence. We preach patience.”
Scanlon yielded five hits and allowed three earned runs in five innings to improve to 5-1. He has won his last three starts.
“Connor was not his best, but in this type of game you pitch a little differently,” Brewster said.
Kevin Metz and Brendan Stanzione began the second inning for Johnson with consecutive doubles, Stanzione driving in his team’s first run. An opposite field single to left hit by lefty-swinging Max Carmino brought in the second.
“We know that in the final we’ll be in a real battle,” Brewster said.
FIRST UCT SEMIFINAL AT CRANFORD’S MEMORIAL FIELD
9-Johnson (9-8) 0 2 0 1 1 – 4 5 2
4-Westfield (11-7) 5 1 0 9 x – 15 14 3
Westfield senior RH Connor Scanlon (5-1)
5 innings complete, 87 pitches: 4 runs (3 earned) on 5 hits,
6 strikeouts (4 swinging, 2 looking), 2 walks.
Johnson junior RH Anthony Caldiero (1-2)
3 innings (the starter), 68 pitches: 6 runs on 5 hits,
0 strikeouts, 4 walks, 1 hit batter
Johnson – Max Carmino, Brendan Stanzione (infield), Anthony Caldiero.
Westfield – Alex Pansini, Matt LaCorte, Pansini, LaCorte, Kobi Wolf, Jake Vall-Llobera, Pansini.
Johnson – Kevin Metz, Brendan Stanzione.
Westfield – Chris Wagner, Jake Lerie, Steve Barden, Matt LaCorte.
Johnson – None.
Westfield – None.
Johnson – None.
Westfield – Kobi Wolf, James Friel, Jake Lerie.
11-Zak Thornton, junior, shortstop
18-Mike Sot, senior, designated hitter
15-Lorenzo Depaz, junior, left field (not batting)
24-Joe Turek, junior, first base
34-Vin Crisafi, senior, catcher
14-Kevin Metz, junior, third base
23-Brendan Stanzione, senior, center field
2-Anthony Caldiero, junior, pitcher (1-1)
10-Max Carmino, freshman, second base
4-Mike Casalino, junior, right field
31-Conner Fayerd, senior
3-Jordan Fedak, junior
5-Pat Grady, freshman
30-Peter Pavese, sophomore
22-Joe DiProfio, junior
4-WESTFIELD BLUE DEVILS:
6-Alex Pansini, senior, second base
11-Matt LaCorte, senior, shortstop
9-Jake Lerie, junior, left field
23-Chris Wagner, junior, first base
15-Kobi Wolf, senior, designated hitter
5-Connor Scanlon, senior, pitcher (not batting)
20-Jake Vall-Llobera, junior, catcher
25-Matt Manning, junior, third base
17-James Friel, senior, right field
1-Steve Barden, junior, center field
CONNELLY WINS IT FOR CRANFORD WITH INFIELD HIT;
McCAFFERY GOES TO 5-MAN INFIELD FOR FIRST TIME
While you had a pretty good feeling early on that higher-seeded Westfield was going to prevail over Johnson in Saturday’s first UCT semifinal, the winner of the second game between third-seeded Scotch Plains and second-seeded Cranford was in doubt until the very end.
The second semifinal featured both teams scoring on suicide squeeze bunts toward third base, runners getting thrown out at home in the top and the bottom of the seventh, a five-man infield used for the very first time by Cranford and the game-winning hit – an infield single – produced by a player who came out of the game right before one of the biggest plays of the game – and the most controversial – occurred.
When lefty-swinging Pat Connelly squibbed a hit – on an 0-2 count – that rolled ever so slowly in the infield toward second base, in came Jim Shriner from third to give Cranford a thrilling, come-from-behind 3-2 win over Scotch Plains.
Next Saturday’s championship game features fourth-seeded Westfield vs. second-seeded Cranford at 3 p.m. at Kean University’s Jim Hynes, Class of 1963 Field in Union.
Westfield and Cranford lost in the semifinals at Kean last year.
Westfield is 14-9 in the final at 10-7 under head coach Bob Brewster, at the helm since 1983.
Cranford is 9-0 in the final, all under head coach Dennis McCaffery, at the helm since 1999. Cranford is 2-1 vs. Westfield in the final, with Westfield winning in 1978 – 3-2 – in the sixth and final time the Blue Devils were in the final before Bob Brewster took over.
Cranford won both matchups pitting McCaffery vs. Brewster, including a come-from-behind 6-5 win in 2010 at Elizabeth’s Williams Field – Westfield led 5-0 – and 8-0 at Kean in 2013, which was the last time the teams met in the final.
Westfield has won the most titles with 14. Cranford is second with nine.
With the score still tied 2-2 between Scotch Plains and Cranford going into the bottom of the eighth, Scotch Plains lefty reliever Tim Geissel retired leadoff batter Ryan Bakie, striking him out swinging on a 2-2 count.
Then Jim Shriner banged out an opposite field single to right on the first pitch he saw.
Geissel then struck out designated hitter Mike Meola swinging for out No. 2. Shriner then stole second, just beating a fine throw made by Scotch Plains catcher Peter Yarem.
Now with the game-winning run in scoring position, lefty-swinging Tom Armstrong went the other way and delivered a base hit to left. This time Shriner was held at third as he would not have been able to beat the throw home.
McCaffery sent a runner from third in the bottom of the seventh for the win and a well-executed 7-6-2 relay was produced by the Raiders to gun the runner down.
Back to the eight inning, Armstrong promptly stole second to eliminate the force at second.
Now Connelly was up with runners on second and third and two outs. The runner on second didn’t matter. It was Connelly’s job to somehow get the winning run in from third.
In the seventh inning, Connelly was taken out of the game from his left field position when McCaffery inserted a fifth infielder – senior Anthony Patella – in order to give the Cougars a better chance at fielding a ground ball to potentially throw the Scotch Plains runner on third out at the plate if the play ensued.
Having re-entered, Connelly had a chance to be the hero – to end it.
Strike one. Strike two.
Behind in the count at 0-2, Connelly was ready to protect the plate.
He did much more than that.
“When I first got up to the plate I was thinking gap-to-gap,” Connelly said. “When I got two strikes on me I just wanted to put the ball in play.”
Connelly took a full swing of the next pitch Geissel offered, with the bat hitting the ball and rolling just fast enough past Geissel, but slow enough for the second baseman to run in, pick it up cleanly and throw him out.
“I saw where I hit the ball and knew I had a good chance to beat it out once it got past the pitcher,” Connelly said. “I was just happy to hit the ball and be safe.”
“Pat really battled there with two strikes,” McCaffery said.
Cranford advanced to its 10th UCT championship game under McCaffery’s lead.
Cranford starter Gordon Graceffo, who faced the minimum three batters in five of the first six innings, gave up an opposite field single to right to Colin McAlindin with one out in the seventh. Sam Schetelich followed with a ground rule double to right-center – it appeared that the ball went through the fence and beyond – to put runners on second and third with one out.
Scotch Plains was in prime position to take its second lead.
McCaffery went to the mound and made the switch. Out comes Connelly from left and in to play in the infield to the right of second baseman Tyler Szczech is Patella.
Cranford now has three infielders on the right side and two on the left and, oh yeah, no left fielder.
McCaffery has set up a 5-man infield to try to throw out the runner from third going home if the play warrants it.
Up to the plate steps pinch hitter Ryan Yawger.
“I didn’t know what Coach McCaffery was doing at first,” Graceffo said.
“I anticipated a ball to be hit on the ground, that’s why I decided to do that,” McCaffery said. “I never saw it (5-man infield) when I was on the field and never did it as a coach before.
“I went with my gut.”
It turned out to be the right move.
Yawger hit the ball to Szczech, who throw home to catcher Mike McGee. McAlindin from third beat the throw, sliding in. McGee held his ground and made a solid tag.
While everyone expected the umpire to call McAlindin safe, he did the opposite and called him out.
“The umpire said that the runner never touched home plate,” McCaffery said.
The game remained tied at 2-2, despite vehement protests from the Scotch Plains coaching staff, led by head coach Joe Higgins.
With a runner on first and one out in the bottom of the seventh Szczech hit a shot over the left fielder’s head that rolled to the fence. That runner, Matt Perino who earlier in the game put down the bunt on the suicide squeeze that scored courtesy runner James Wozniak with the run that tied the game at 2-2, was sent home, trying to score from first.
A perfect 7-6-2 (left fielder to shortstop to catcher) relay saw backstop Yarem apply the tag – in plenty of time – on Perino to keep the game 2-2.
Although Scotch Plains thought it had the go-ahead run and didn’t get it in the top of the seventh, at least the Raiders were able to come up with a fine defensive play to help send the game to extra innings.
That’s probably little consolation now for Scotch Plains, which just fell short of reaching the final for the second consecutive season.
Graceffo went the distance for Cranford to improve to 3-2. He threw 93 pitches in an eight-inning, complete-game effort that saw him yield just four hits. He threw perfect innings in the first, second, third, fifth and eighth and also faced just three batters in the sixth.
“I still felt strong in the eighth inning and got a lot of help from my teammates,” Graceffo said. “It’s exciting to get to the county championship game, which will be my first.”
Graceffo lost a 1-0 decision at home to Westfield on April 27, which was Cranford’s first game on its new field turf field. The Cougars have won five straight since.
Graceffo is aware of the run Westfield is on offensively at the moment.
“Westfield will be tough, but we think we can do it,” Graceffo said.
Graceffo will be McCaffery’s lead option to start next week’s game against Westfield.
“Gordon had command of his fastball today, threw his curve for strikes and also had a slider and changeup going,” McCaffery said. “Since last year he’s gotten bigger and stronger and has a lot more on his ball.”
Scotch Plains starter, sophomore left hander Dan Wilkinson, also pitched well. He allowed just two runs in five complete innings, with a pitch count just under 100.
Geissel allowed just the one run in 2 and 2/3 innings and pitched a perfect sixth.
Cranford took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second when Bakie doubled and Shriner brought him home with a sacrifice fly to center.
Scotch Plains scored its only two runs in the fourth to take a 2-1 lead after Graceffo retired the first nine batters he faced. Leadoff batter Jake Canavan worked a walk on a 3-1 count and the stole second base.
Canavan moved to third on a ground out to third. Yarem then smoked an opposite field hit right over the first base bag and into right field, scoring Canavan to even the game at 1-1.
After an infield error put runners on first and third with one out, Peter Warren put down a squeeze bunt that not only drove in the tying run from third, but saw Warren reach first. The runner from first went all the way to third as third base was not covered.
Now with runners on first and third and still one out, Graceffo was able to get out of further trouble. The second out was at the plate on a ground ball to third and throw home and the final out was a ground ball to short.