CRANFORD – Most baseball seasons it’s really never too early to talk about, emphasize, hype or even blow out of proportion the first Governor Livingston vs. Cranford matchup.
Ten days into the 2019 campaign and it’s justified.
On Thursday, Cranford – at home – scored early, won, and improved to 5-0 overall. The Cougars topped Elizabeth 5-2.
GL – on the road – scored in extra innings, won, and improved to 5-0. The Highlanders were victorious at Union 4-2 in eight innings.
On Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Cranford’s Memorial Field field turf setting, Watchung Division co-leaders GL and Cranford are set to clash for the first time.
Both are at the top of the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division standings at 4-0 and will remain that way up until Tuesday.
Cranford’s only game before then will be at home Friday vs. New Providence. GL is scheduled to host Union Catholic Friday and then Madison in Saturday’s annual Highlander Classic championship game.
When they face each other Tuesday they will both complete their first go-round in division play.
As this decade winds down this year, Cranford and GL have done quite well. Cranford has won three Group 3 state championships this decade – 2010, 2012 and 2013 – while GL has captured two Group 2 state crowns – 2011 and 2015. GL has also won its first two Union County Tournament champions – capturing two of the past three in 2016 and 2018. Cranford last won the UCT in 2015.
Cranford remains one of the favorites in North 2, Group 3, while GL has the same prominence in Central Jersey, Group 2.
GL HIGHLANDERS (5-0, 4-0)
April 2 (A) Gov. Livingston 8, Elizabeth 2
April 4 (H) Gov. Livingston 12, Westfield 1
April 6 (H) Gov. Livingston 12, Oratory Prep 2
April 10 (H) Gov. Livingston 11, Scotch Plains 4
April 11 (A) Gov. Livingston 4, Union 2 (8 inn.)
April 12 Union Catholic, 4 p.m.
April 13 Madison, 2 p.m.
April 16 at Cranford, 4 p.m.
CRANFORD COUGARS (5-0, 4-0)
April 2 (H) Cranford 6, Scotch Plains 5
April 4 (A) Cranford 5, Union 0
April 8 (H) Cranford 4, Johnson 0
April 9 (H) Cranford 9, Westfield 5
April 11 (H) Cranford 5, Elizabeth 2
April 12 New Providence, 4 p.m.
April 16 Gov. Livingston, 4 p.m.
To Elizabeth’s credit, Thursday’s Watchung Division game at Cranford’s Memorial Field saw four Minutemen pitchers limit the Cougars to five runs – all of them coming in the first inning.
That run production held up as lanky Cranford senior right hander Jeremy Ruka (2-0) went on to toss a five-hitter that included five strikeouts and no walks.
A week ago at Union Ruka pitched the first six innings of a combined shutout with Kevin Donovan that saw the Cougars win 5-0. Ruka allowed five hits, struck out seven and walked two that day.
On Thursday against the Minutemen he allowed five hits again, two earned runs, struck out five and did not walk a batter.
“I try not to do everything myself,” Ruka said. “Strikeouts are nice, but they can get your pitch count up.”
Ruka tossed 90 pitches, with Elizabeth scoring both of its runs off him in the fourth – the second on a wild pitch.
“When I walk into a game I just imagine myself throwing the ball down the middle and gaining confidence that way. My catcher (Joe Meola) makes it easy to throw the ball to.”
Ruka allowed only one hit through the first three innings before Josh Ciano led off the fourth with a single to center and then Brandon Vasquez followed with an RBI-double to left and then he reached third after the throw home attempting to get Ciano.
The only other hits Ruka allowed after that were harmless singles in the sixth and seventh. Meola picked off a runner at first in the sixth.
“For us it all starts with pitching,” Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery said. “I’m happy with the way our pitchers (including Jake Van Dam, Donovan, Jack McAleavey and Ruka) have performed so far, getting strikes and working ahead.
“Jeremy was working both sides of the plate today, using a fastball, curveball, slider and change.”
With leadoff batter James Shriner aboard on a single, Cranford took the lead for good in the bottom of the first when the next batter – lefty-swinging sophomore left fielder Marcus Johnson – drilled a two-run homer for the game-winning hit, putting Cranford quickly in front 2-0.
The Cougars followed that same inning with what turned out to be three more very big insurance runs.
Cranford has scored early often so far this season. The Cougars have scored in the first inning in every game, with one run against Scotch Plains, two vs. Union, two against Johnson, four vs. Westfield and five against Elizabeth.
Of Cranford’s 29 runs scored so far, 14 have come in the first inning.
“We’ll take them any time we can get them,” McCaffery said. “In the first inning today against Elizabeth we had a couple of really good at-bats.”
Also hitting safely for the Cougars were junior shortstop Jake DiClerico, senior second baseman Tyler Szczech, junior first baseman Aidan Plick, junior catcher Joe Meola, senior designated hitter Michael Meola and freshman pinch hitter Lucca Limeira.
“We’re off to a great start and all of our wins so far are against teams in the county,” Shriner said. “It helps to get good pitching. We haven’t been great offensively yet, but we should be okay for the long run.”
Cranford is coming off a 12-8-1 season that saw the Cougars eliminated uncharacteristically early in the quarterfinal round of both the UCT and the North 2, Group 3 playoffs – losing to the top seed (Westfield and West Morris) on both occasions.
Cranford last won the Watchung Division in 2015 – shared with GL – and outright in 2013. GL is the two-time defending outright champion.
“Cranford-GL is always an interesting one,” Shriner said.
“So far we’ve come into games ready to go, scoring multiple runs right away,” Ruka said. “We just care and want to be able to challenge for multiple championships.”
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE
WATCHUNG DIVISION STANDINGS
INCLUDING THURSDAY, APRIL 11 GAMES:
1-Gov. Livingston (4-0)
Scotch Plains (1-3)
THURSDAY, APRIL 11 SCOREBOARD:
Cranford 5, Elizabeth 2 – at Cranford
Gov. Livingston 4, Union 2 (8 inn.) – at Union
Westfield 5, Scotch Plains 4 – at Westfield