CRANFORD – Going into the sixth inning you could have described the game as bordering on a classic.
A low-scoring contest saw the score still tied after both teams survived fifth inning errors.
Then after each led off their sixth innings with singles, it was a matter of one not getting the bunt down and the other doing so.
That was the big enough difference between two fundamentally sound, 20-plus win squads.
After visiting South Plainfield hit into a double play on its sacrifice bunt attempt in the top of the sixth, host Cranford successfully moved runners with two excellent bunts in the bottom of the inning.
Daring to break the game open with the bases loaded and one out after a force at the plate kept the game tied for the moment, ultimately it was a successful suicide squeeze bunt by righty swinging batter Alex Plick that brought home Chris Folinusz from third and even courtesy runner Bobby Bruns from second that gave Cranford the lead for good.
“I was told that if a guy reached third I would be squeezing,” said Plick, who successfully executed the play a couple of other times this season. “I followed his wind-up and thought he might throw the pitch that he did and I got the bunt down.”
Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery, who pushed the right button again, jumped for joy as if he had never won before, ecstatic that his Cougars not only produced one run on the bang-bang play, but two as the result of a throwing error.
Seizing the opportunity it had with the middle of its lineup at the plate in the bottom of the sixth, top-seeded Cranford scored four unanswered runs in its final at-bat to pull away from second-seeded South Plainfield 5-1 in Friday afternoon’s North 2, Group 3 baseball championship game at Memorial Field.
Cranford repeated as the section’s champion and captured North 2, Group 3 for the third time in four years.
The Cougars, who improved to 23-1 with their sixth straight victory, will next face North 1 champion Paramus (17-12) in Tuesday’s 4 p.m. Group 3 semifinal at East Brunswick Tech. Third-seeded Paramus defeated ninth-seeded Teaneck 6-3 in Friday’s North 1, Group 3 title game at Paramus.
The winner advances to the Group 3 state championship game, scheduled for June 8 at one of the three Toms River high schools.
South Plainfield finished a fine season at 23-7.
“We had some opportunities to score,” South Plainfield head coach Anthony Guida said.
The Tigers loaded the bases with two outs in the first inning, but were unable to push across a run.
Cranford’s ability to execute in the sixth inning after South Plainfield was unable to led to the winning rally.
“Cranford is experienced,” Guida said. “They capitalized on the suicide squeeze and that left us reeling a bit there.”
The Tigers received a solid, complete game, six inning effort from senior left hander Pat Boyle (7-2), who was a team captain this season.
“He’s been a workhorse for us,” Guida said. “He’s an intelligent player.”
For Cranford on the mound, senior left hander and North Carolina State-bound Ryan Williamson scattered seven hits in a seven inning complete game performance – the ace threw 92 pitches – that saw him strike out four, walk one and hit one batter. The run the 6-2, 195-pounder gave up was only the fourth he yielded this year and only the third earned.
Williamson gave up five of the seven hits he surrendered – he did not yield an extra-base hit – in the first three innings.
“Early on they were timing my fastball,” Williamson said. “I was trying to get ahead. In the fourth inning I broke out my changeup and threw it effectively.”
“They (South Plainfield) had a good approach,” Cranford senior catcher Chris Folinusz said. “As the game went on Ryan progressed and gave us a great game like he always does.”
Williamson improved to 9-0, won his 15th straight and is now 26-5 lifetime. Williamson went 4-2 as a freshman, 7-3 as a sophomore and 6-0 as a junior. He has now not lost a game in more than two years.
His last loss came in relief when second-seeded Cranford was upended at home by seventh-seeded Mendham 7-3 on May 27, 2011 in a North 2, Group 3 quarterfinal at Memorial Field.
That’s Cranford’s only state tournament loss the past four seasons. Since state tournament play began for the Cougars in 2010, Cranford is now 17-1 in the states, with a 10-game winning streak.
On the same stage 52 weeks ago – June 1, 2012 – Williamson allowed no runs on just two hits in six complete innings to win that sectional championship game at Memorial Field. He combined with senior Vinnie Colaneri on a two hit shutout of second-seeded West Morris, with the Cougars winning 7-0.
Cranford has now captured eight sectional championships during McCaffery’s 15-season tenure that began in 1999. Since then, Cranford has won North 2, Group 3 in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013 and Central Jersey, Group 2 in 2005. When McCaffery was an assistant on James Shriner’s staff for the 1996, 1997 and 1998 seasons, Cranford also captured North 2, Group 3 in 1997 and also the Group 3 state championship that season.
South Plainfield took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when lefty-swinging leadoff batter Justin Marks, the team’s catcher, lined a two-out, RBI-single up the middle, bringing home Jeff Pellegrino, who led off the frame with a single to center on an 0-2 fastball. Pellegrino reached second on a rare Williamson balk and moved to third on a ground out to second.
Cranford immediately tied the game in the bottom of the second with a two-out, run-producing hit of its own. With runners on first and second, junior righty swinging Matt Ravitier was quickly behind in the count at 0-2.
After fouling off two more pitches, Ravitier, still in a 0-2 hole, fought off a pitch that he fisted the opposite way just over the glove of first baseman Celentano and into right field, scoring Bruns, who was running for Williamson after he hit a shot to right for a one-out triple.
“I was a little nervous at 0-2,” Ravitier said. “At that point I was just looking to make contact. I think he threw me a changeup and I was able to hit it.”
Celentano led off the top of the sixth with an opposite field single to left, with sophomore Kyle Dickerson going in to run for him. Then junior Rob Eggert, on the first pitch he saw from Williamson, popped up a bunt toward first.
Williamson barehanded the ball after it took one bounce and quickly threw to first for the initial out. Cranford first baseman Plick then threw to shortstop Sean Feeney for a 1-3-6 double play that totally erased momentum that South Plainfield began to build.
Williamson got the next batter to ground out to Feeney to end the inning.
Cranford senior and lefty swinging Andrew DeFrancesco led off the bottom of the sixth with a hard-hit single to right. Folinusz, the cleanup batter who took a healthy swing on one pitch to try to hit the ball high and far, banged a single up the middle to center field on a 1-2 Boyle offering. Folinusz also hit the ball hard his first two times up, lining out to the second baseman and grounding out to short.
“I needed to get a hit in that spot,” said Folinusz, who will continue playing baseball at Rutgers after he graduates this month. “With two strikes I was looking to hit some kind of line drive. Boyle is a good pitcher.”
With runners on first and second and nobody out, Williamson took a swing at a pitch way outside for strike one. He then put down an exceptional bunt right in front of the catcher toward third base that Marks fielded. Instead of going to first for the sure out, Marks tried to get the lead runner at third, but DeFrancesco go to the base first.
With bases loaded and nobody out, Boyle got Cranford designated hitter Albert Gargiulo to ground the ball right back to him for a 1-2 force at the plate, keeping the game at 1-1.
Plick followed, getting the bat on the ball on the one pitch he really needed to. The third baseman fielded the bunt and threw wildly to first as Folinusz was scoring on the squeeze. The errant throw allowed Bruns to score all the way from second to put the Cougars in front for good at 3-1.
“There were two good pitchers today, so we knew that we had to fight until the end,” Plick said.
After Plick stole second to put runners on second and third with still one out, Ravitier came through again by hitting another opposite field single to right to plate two more runs and put Cranford out in front 5-1.
“We always look to play small ball, looking for one run and then going from there,” Ravitier said.
Ravitier, also a steady pitcher for the Cougars who got the win in Cranford’s 3-2 semifinal victory over Mendham, was 2-for-2, with two singles, three RBI and a walk.
South Plainfield also had a failed bunt attempt to move the leadoff runner in the second inning, although that runner did come around to score.
“We got the leadoff man on in the sixth with a hit and then hit into a double play,” Guida said. “The book on Cranford is that they are a very good defensive team and they were there.”
Williamson hit a batter in the seventh and got the final out on a fly ball to Ravitier.
Although another sectional title was captured, Cranford is holding back its celebrating until – it hopes – two more wins are accomplished.
“Being 23-1 is nice, but we still have to work hard and play as a team,” Williamson said. “The team that wins is the team that is able to execute, get the bunts down, run the bases and get timely hitting.”
CRANFORD BASEBALL RECORDS THE PAST 4 YEARS:
2013 (23-1, so far) – UCC-Watchung Division champions
Union County Tournament champions,
North 2, Group 3 champions
2012 (22-4) – UCC-Watchung Division champions,
North 2, Group 3 and Group 3 state champions
2011 (20-5) – UCC-Watchung Division champions,
Union County Tournament champions
2010 (26-5) – UCC-Mountain Division champions,
Union County Tournament champions,
North 2, Group 3 and Group 3 state champions
CRANFORD BASEBALL IN STATE TOURNAMENT PLAY SINCE 2010:
NORTH 2, GROUP 3
2013 – Top seed.
First Round: 1-Cranford 7, 16-Rahway 0 – at Cranford
Quarterfinals: 1-Cranford 8, 8-Summit 5 – at Cranford
Semifinals: 1-Cranford 3, 4-Mendham 2 – at Cranford
Final: 1-Cranford 5, 2-South Plainfield 1 – at Cranford
Group 3 Semifinal: Cranford vs. Paramus – at East Brunswick Tech
2012 – Top seed.
First Round: 1-Cranford 5, 16-Ferris 0 – at Cranford
Quarterfinals: 1-Cranford 1, 9-Scotch Plains 0 – at Cranford
Semifinals: 1-Cranford 7, 12-Morristown 1 – at Cranford
Final: 1-Cranford 7, 2-West Morris 0 – at Cranford
Group 3 Semifinal: Cranford 7, West Milford 4 – at Ramapo College
Group 3 Final: Cranford 4, Freehold Borough 1 – at Toms River South
2011 – 2nd seed.
First Round: 2-Cranford 13, Parsippany Hills 2 – at Cranford
Quarterfinals: 7-Mendham 7, 2-Cranford 3 – at Cranford
2010 – 3rd seed.
First Round: 3-Cranford 6, 14-Voorhees 0 – at Cranford
Quarterfinals: 3-Cranford 12, 6-Iselin Kennedy 6 – at Cranford
Semifinals: 3-Cranford 6, 2-Scotch Plains 5 – at Scotch Plains
Final: 3-Cranford 9, 5-Morristown 8 (8 inn.) – at Cranford
Group 3 Semifinal: Cranford 7 Lakeland 1 – at Kean
Group 3 Final: Cranford 15, Ocean City 3 – at Toms River North
SENIOR LH RYAN WILLIAMSON
2013 (9-0, so far)
NORTH 2, GROUP 3 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AT MEMORIAL FIELD
2-SOUTH PLAINFIELD (23-7) 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 – 1 7 2
1-CRANFORD (23-1) 0 1 0 0 0 4 x – 5 6 1
Cranford senior LH Ryan Williamson (9-0)
7 innings complete, 92 pitches: 1 run (earned), 7 hits,
4 strikeouts, 1 walk, 1 balk, 1 hit batter.
Retired the side in order in the fourth inning.
Pitch count: 1-21. 2-19. 3-8. 4-10. 5-19. 6-7. 7-8. Total: 92.
South Plainfield senior LH Pat Boyle (7-2)
6 innings complete, 87 pitches: 5 runs (3 earned), 6 hits,
2 strikeouts, 3 walks.
Retired the side in order in the fourth inning.
Picked off two baserunners.
Pitch count: 1-13. 2-17. 3-17. 4-8. 5-16. 6-16. Total: 87.
SINGLES: South Plainfield – Taylor Born (2), Aidan McDermott (2), Jeff Pellegrino, Justin Marks, AJ Celentano. Cranford – Matt Ravitier (2), Tommy Trotter, Andrew DeFrancesco, Chris Folinusz.
DOUBLES: South Plainfield – None. Cranford – None.
TRIPLES: South Plainfield – None. Cranford – Ryan Williamson.
HOME RUNS: South Plainfield – None. Cranford – None.
2013 NORTH JERSEY, SECTION 2, GROUP 3 BASEBALL
SEEDS: 1-Cranford. 2-South Plainfield. 3-Roxbury. 4-Mendham.
5-Morristown. 6-Newark East Side. 7-Gov. Livingston. 8-Summit.
9-Nutley. 10-Chatham. 11-Iselin Kennedy. 12-West Morris.
13-Ferris. 14-Parsippany Hills. 15-Colonia. 16-Rahway.
Monday, May 20
Cranford 7, Rahway 0 – at Cranford
Summit 5, Nutley 4 – at Summit
West Morris 3, Morristown 1 – at Morristown
Mendham 4, Ferris 1 – at Mendham
Roxbury 3, Parsippany Hills 1 – at Roxbury
Gov. Livingston 8, Chatham 7 – at GL
Tuesday, May 21
Iselin Kennedy 7, Newark East Side 1 – at East Side
South Plainfield 10, Colonia 2 – at South Plainfield
Sunday, May 26
Cranford 8, Summit 5 – at Cranford
Mendham 9, West Morris 1 – at Mendham
Iselin Kennedy 5, Morristown 2 – at Roxbury
South Plainfield 12, Gov. Livingston 7 – at South Plainfield
Wednesday, May 29
Cranford 3, Mendham 2 – at Cranford
South Plainfield 3, Iselin Kennedy 0 – at South Plainfield
Friday, May 31
Cranford 5, South Plainfield 1 – at Cranford
Defending champion: Cranford.