UNION – Two weeks into the season Scotch Plains-Fanwood had a record of 2-6. The Raiders were not thinking trophy. They were looking to snap a five-game losing streak.
Then 11 days later Scotch Plains was down to its final out, just one strike away from losing to be more specific, before rallying to win its first-round county tournament contest. The Raiders were not thinking trophy. They were just seeking a way to at least even the contest up, just trying to stay alive.
Scotch Plains first responded with a six-game winning streak that catapulted the Raiders over .500 at 8-6.
Included in that stretch was its 2-1, come-from-behind, first-round county tournament triumph over 11th-seeded Oratory Prep. The Raiders scored twice in the bottom of the seventh to pull out a dramatic one-run victory.
The winning continued, including in county tournament play. Next was a 1-0 win at third-seeded Union, with senior left hander Danny Wilkinson tossing a no-hitter as Scotch Plains became the first and still only team to beat Union senior right hander Zach Fernandez.
The Raiders then knocked off defending champion Gov. Livingston 6-2 in Saturday’s semifinals at Kean. Scotch Plains lost to GL in a close 2016 UCT final at Kean and then in 2017 the Raiders lost at Cranford in extra innings in the UCT semifinals. Last year, as the second seed, Scotch Plains lost a high-scoring game at home to seventh-seeded Elizabeth in quarterfinal round action.
This year, as the sixth seed, it all came together for the Raiders. It worked out for Scotch Plains. It was anything but easy.
The finishing touch was produced Wednesday night as three Scotch Plains hurlers – Patrick Cuccurullo, Nick Merkel and Mike Urbano – combined on a six-hit shutout to help lead the Raiders past fourth-seeded Johnson 4-0 in the 66th annual baseball Union County Tournament championship game played at Kean University’s Jim Hynes Class of 1963 Stadium.
Scotch Plains only gave up three runs in four tournament victories, winning the title for the first time since 2009 and for the fifth time overall. The first three crowns were realized in 1969, 1976 and 2004.
The Raiders also beat three teams seeded higher, including third-seeded Union, second-seeded and defending champion Gov. Livingston and fourth-seeded Johnson.
HERE’S A CLOSER LOOK:
6-Scotch Plains 2, 11-Oratory Prep 1 – at Scotch Plains
6-Scotch Plains 1, 3-Union 0 – at Union
6-Scotch Plains 6, 2-Gov. Livingston 2 – at Kean
6-Scotch Plains 4, 4-Johnson 0 – at Kean
So the Raiders went from being one strike away from getting shut out at home in first-round play and not even winning one game in the tournament to going all the way to winning the crown for the first time in 10 years.
“We definitely fought through this,” said Cuccurullo, who pitched into the sixth vs. Johnson to earn his second mound victory.
“Baseball’s a funny game,” said Scotch Plains head coach Joe Higgins, who was Tom Baylock’s assistant coach in 2004 and 2009 when Scotch Plains previously won the crown. “These games can go either way.
”It’s tough to get here. Who knows when you’re going to be back?”
Scotch Plains won its third straight to improve to 14-8. The Raiders have won 12 of their last 14.
Johnson, which reached the final for the first time since 2002, fell to 11-9. The Crusaders, with one UCT championship in program history in 1980, will next host Summit for the Union County Conference’s Mountain Division title. If Johnson wins, the Crusaders win the division outright at 5-1. If Summit wins, the teams will share the crown both at 4-2 and having split with each other.
Scotch Plains scored three of its four runs against Johnson with two outs. With two outs and nobody on in the top of the first, Dean Kirian was hit by a pitch in the back and then he stole second.
On an 0-2 pitch, cleanup batter Michael Dieu drove the ball the opposite way to drive in Kirian with an RBI-single to right-center. Dieu’s game-winning hit gave Scotch Plains the lead for good at 1-0 before Johnson ever came to bat.
Johnson produced six hits and had baserunners every inning but the second. The Crusaders had their chances – they stranded 13 baserunners total – and put runners on first and second with nobody out in the first and fourth innings vs. Cuccurullo.
However, the crafty, Montclair State-bound lefty managed to get out of the jams he was in. He closed the fourth with two strikeouts. He also struck out two batters in the first.
“I had to settle down,” Cuccurullo said. “In the fourth I went with my fastball away and then my curve. Johnson’s a good team.”
After Scotch Plains, ahead 3-0 at the time, executed a 6-4-3 double play in the sixth, Cuccurullo gave up his final hit – a single up the middle by Joe Greenbush. Higgins went to Merkel, who got the third out on one pitch, a foul out to catcher Chris Smith.
“Patrick did a tremendous job and Nick got a big out for us there,” Higgins said.
Merkel will also continue playing baseball at Montclair State.
“That was just the right time for Merk to come in,” Cuccurullo said.
In the fifth, Josh Canavan and Kirian produced RBI-singles. The final Scotch Plains run was the result of a seventh inning throwing error.
Angelo DiNizo, including an opposite field triple to left for the game’s only extra-base hit, and Kirian had two hits each for the Raiders.
Pat Brennan had two hits for the Crusaders and came up as the tying run with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh. Higgins brought
in Urbano to face him. Johnson had the bases full as the result of three walks, the last two on eight-pitch at-bats.
“We felt it was necessary to bring Urbano in at that time, for him to locate and give us a stronger presence,” Higgins said.
Urbano didn’t disappoint. On his second pitch he managed to retire Brennan on a fly ball to center for the game’s final out.
“I’m happy for the kids,” Higgins said. “We’ve played in 12 one-run games this year and have just started to win some of them. These kids never gave up.
“They were only (age) six and seven when we last won, so I’m happy for them.”
NOTES: Scotch Plains will be competing in the North 2, Group 4 playoffs and Johnson in Central Jersey, Group 2. The pairings will be released Thursday.
66TH ANNUAL BASEBALL UNION COUNTY TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AT KEAN UNIVERSITY
6-Scotch Plains (14-8) 1 0 0 0 2 0 1 – 4 7 1
4-Johnson (11-9) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 – 0 6 3
RUNNERS LEFT ON BASE:
Scotch Plains: 0, 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 1 – 5.
Johnson: 2, 0, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3 – 11.
SCOTCH PLAINS STARTING PITCHER:
32-Patrick Cuccurullo, senior, LH, (WP 2-3)
5 and 2/3 innings
0 runs, 6 hits (1 baserunner)
5 strikeouts (all swinging), 2 walks, 1 hit batter
Perfect inning in the 2nd.
K1-swing (2-2 off speed)
K2-swing (2-2 fastball)
K3-swing (1-2 fastball)
K4-swing (0-2 fastball)
K5-swing (1-2 fastball)
K6-swing (1-2 breaking ball)
Pitch count: 1-21. 2-8. 3-13. 4-13. 5-22. 6-22. Total: 89.
SCOTCH PLAINS FIRST RELIEF PITCHER:
20-Nick Merkel, senior, RH, (hold)
1 and 2/3 innings,
0 runs, 0 hits
1 strikeout, 3 walks
K1-look (1-2 off speed)
Pitch count: 6-1. 7-26. Total: 33.
SCOTCH PLAINS SECOND RELIEF PITCHER:
44-Mike Urbano, junior, RH (save)
0 runs, 0 hits,
0 strikeouts, 0 walks
Pitch count: 7-2. Total: 2.
JOHNSON STARTING PITCHER:
11-Shane Mulroy, junior, RH, (LP 2-1)
1 run, 4 hits
2 strikeouts (both looking), 0 walks, 1 hit batter
Perfect inning in the 4th.
K1-look (2-2 fastball)
K2-look (1-2 fastball)
Pitch count: 1-10. 2-12. 3-15. 4-12. Total: 49.
JOHNSON RELIEF PITCHER:
5-Pat Grady, junior, RH
3 runs (2 earned), 3 hits
4 strikeouts (all swinging), 0 walks
K1-swing (1-2 fastball)
K2-swing (3-2 fastball)
K3-swing (2-2 fastball)
K4-swing (3-2 fastball)
Pitch count: 5-16. 6-10. 7-18. Total: 44.
SCOTCH PLAINS HITS IN ORDER (7):
15-Michael Dieu, opposite field RBI-single to right-center (1-0 SP)
10-Angelo DiNizo, infield single (1B), pitcher did not cover
10-Angelo DiNizo, opposite field triple to left
3-Josh Canavan, RBI-single to center (2-0 SP)
9-Dean Kirian, RBI-single to right (3-0 SP)
22-Willy Gale, single to center
9-Dean Kirian, infield single and E-6 (4-0 SP, unearned run)
JOHNSON HITS IN ORDER (6):
3-Max Carmino, bunt single (3B)
14-Steve Harrington, single to right
30-Pat Brennan, opposite field single to right
2-Kyle Adorno, infield single (3B)
30-Pat Brennan, single to center
24-Joe Greenbush, single to center
Scotch Plains – Michael Dieu, Angelo DiNizo, Josh Canavan, Dean Kirian (2), Willy Gale.
Johnson – Max Carmino, Steve Harrington, Pat Brennan (2), Kyle Adorno, Joe Greenbush.
Scotch Plains – None.
Johnson – None.
Scotch Plains – Angelo DiNizo.
Johnson – None.
Scotch Plains – None.
Johnson – None.
6-SCOTCH PLAINS RAIDERS:
22-Willy Gale, center field, senior
1-Jonny Ramos, shortstop, senior
9-Dean Kirian, right field, junior
15-Michael Dieu, first base, senior
7-Tyler Stines, third base, senior
32-Patrick Cuccurullo, pitcher, senior
40-Danny Wilkinson, pinch hitter
6-Chris Smith, catcher, sophomore
10-Angelo DiNizo, designated hitter, senior
3-Josh Canavan, left field, senior
Did not bat:
24-Dallas Lorenzetti, second base
2-Kyle Adorno, center field, sophomore
3-Max Carmino, second base, junior
13-Saul Lopez, third base, junior
14-Steve Harrington, shortstop, junior
30-Pat Brennan, catcher, junior
32-Nick McCaffery, left field, senior
24-Joe Greenbush, right field, sophomore
5-Pat Grady, first base, junior
4-Tyler Washington, designated hitter, junior
Did not bat:
11-Shane Mulroy, pitcher, junior