Cranford baseball tops Union

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CRANFORD, NJ – Following an important comeback victory on Friday, April 14, at home against division rival Union High School, where the Cougars were six outs away from defeat for the first time this year, Cranford High School baseball veteran head coach Dennis McCaffery explained his team’s 7-0 start this way: “Our pitching has done a real nice job and our defense has been up to par.”
Pitchers getting the job done include seniors Matt Chapman, Sean Woodruff, Ben Monahan and Dan Olear and junior Michael Zalinkanskas.

Pitching and defense helped lead Cranford to a convincing 9-1 home win against North Hunterdon High School on Monday, April 17, at Memorial Field. North Hunterdon came in at 5-1 and is one of the teams in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 that will vie later this year to try to prevent Cranford from winning the section for a second straight season.

Another team in the section is Summit High School, leaders of the Union County Conference’s Mountain Division. Summit, with an overall record of 6-1 and a five-game winning streak, was scheduled to host Cranford, 8-0, on Wednesday, April 19.

The Cougars are scheduled to continue this week with a home game against Union Catholic High School on Friday, April 21, at 4 p.m., and then take on Bayonne High School on Sunday, April 23, at 6 p.m., at Weehawken High School’s baseball field, right before the Lincoln Tunnel.

Cranford began the week leading the UCC’s Watchung Division again at 4-0. The defending division champs did not have a game scheduled against a division opponent this week.

The game on Friday, April 14, was a classic pitcher’s duel for the first five innings. All of the game’s runs were scored in the sixth inning.

Here’s how it unfolded:

For five innings, there were a total of just six baserunners, three for each team.

The game started 10:38 a.m. and, when the sixth inning began, it was only 11:47 a.m.

Five innings of high school ball played in just 69 minutes.

Ball two wasn’t pitched until the fourth inning — the 24th batter of the game — and ball three wasn’t pitched until the fifth inning, which is extremely rare in high school baseball, or any other kind of baseball, for that matter.

Thanks to the pitching of starters Aiden Baiardi of Union, a senior left-hander, and Michael Zalinkanskas of Cranford, a junior right-hander, there had only been two hits up to that point.

Zalinkanskas did not walk a batter until the fifth and Baiardi until the sixth.

The sixth inning, however, was the complete opposite. Both starting pitchers couldn’t get their pitches down and a very quick, methodical, tidy contest turned into walks, hit batters, errors, fielder’s choices on squeeze bunts — you name it.

All of the game’s runs were scored in the sixth, with Cranford coming back to post a 7-2 Union County Conference-Watchung Division triumph against Union in this clash at Memorial Field.

Union scored its runs on a bases-loaded walk to cleanup batter Christopher Thomas and a hit batsmen, catcher Jayden Miller, with the bags full to give Baiardi a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth. The Farmers, with their best pitcher on the mound, were now just six outs away from snapping a three-game losing streak and ending the second week of the season on a very high note.

Baiardi, having thrown only 61 pitches in the first five innings, was dealing, striking out seven and not allowing a single walk or hit batter through five.

Baiardi then lost command a bit in the sixth and, with most of his pitches rising too high, walked Cranford’s first two batters in the bottom of the frame, including No. 9 man Brendan Barry in his first at-bat of the game and then leadoff batter Jake Carter.

That brought up No. 2 batter Ryan Jaros, who struck out swinging against Baiardi his first two times up, the first time on just three pitches.

McCaffery called for a bunt immediately and, on the first pitch, Jaros pushed the ball successfully toward third. An error resulted in Jaros reaching, giving Cranford the bases loaded with nobody out.

The Cougars were now set up to do some damage against Baiardi, who struck out 14 Elizabeth batters in six complete innings on Saturday, April 15, for the first time.

Shea Grady, on a 1-0 count, hit a line drive off the Union shortstop’s glove for an RBI-single to pull Cranford to within 2-1. Through five innings, Grady’s two opposite field singles to right were Cranford’s first two baserunners of only three. Grady finished 3-for-3 with one RBI.

“I was on him (Baiardi) my first two at-bats, hitting the ball the other way to right,” Grady said. “He was tough on us. We knew that we had to find a way to chip away at him once they took the lead.”
After Dennis McCaffery, the coach’s son, lined out hard to short — McCaffery from his left field position made a fine, diving, one-handed catch running in for the final out of the sixth to prevent further Union scoring — Sean Riley had the at-bat of the game. It was certainly the longest.

Riley worked Baiardi with foul ball after foul ball for a 12-pitch at-bat that concluded with Riley walking with the bases loaded for an RBI and now a tie game at 2-2. Riley fouled off the first six pitches he saw all the other way to the right side, took the next three pitches for balls, then fouled off two more pitches to the right side before Baiardi threw ball four for his third walk of the inning.

Coach McCaffery then put the squeeze on and Sebastian Morales delivered bunting the ball to the right of Baiardi, who threw to first. However, the first baseman’s foot was not on the base and the throw home was too late to get the second Cranford runner that scored on the play. Now the Cougars were up 4-2.

Four pitches later, junior Ryan Carracino, Cranford’s designated hitter batting seventh in the order, blasted his first varsity home run, a three-run shot over the left field fence.

Carracino, Cranford’s No. 7 batter, brought Cranford’s run total to seven to help the Cougars improve to 7-0.

Cranford senior right hander Ben Monahan retired four of the five Union batters he faced in relief to close out another Cougar division triumph.

Cranford, the defending champion, leads the UCC’s Watchung Division standings at 4-0.

Zalinkanskas went 5 and 2/3 innings, throwing 81 pitches. He allowed two runs on two hits, struck out six, walked two and hit two batters.

Baiardi, Union’s only pitcher, went six complete innings again, as he did on Saturday. April 15, at home against Elizabeth and, again, threw 108 pitches, 47 of them in the sixth. Baiardi allowed seven runs on four hits, struck out nine and walked three. He did not hit a batter.

“Both starting pitchers had command and it was a well-pitched game from both sides and a very quick game the first five innings,” coach McCaffery said. “With Baiardi, we wanted to minimize our strikeouts and we didn’t do a very good job of that early on.

“I thought our pitcher gave us a gutsy performance. We were then able to execute two bunts. Riley had a big, 12-pitch at-bat and then we added on with Ryan’s home run.”

Monahan, in relief, was the winning pitcher, while Baiardi took the loss.

Union had a rough 0-4 week after beginning the week with a 3-1 record. The Farmers, who with a lead gave up six runs late to fall at Union Catholic 7-4 on Thursday, April 13, dropped to 3-5. ]

However, there is still plenty of time left in the season for Union to excel. Baiardi proved that he could be quite effective against the best and only undefeated team at the moment in Union County.

“We knew we were going to be in a dog fight against their pitcher,” said Carracino, who grounded out to third and reached on an outfield error before he smashed his round-tripper. “On the home run, he threw me a pitch where the ball looked like the size of a meatball. It was great to see my teammates cheering me on and gathering at home plate.”

Another outstanding defensive play was made by Jaros in the top of the fourth. Lefty-batting Baiardi led off with a smash the other way that was headed to left field. However, Jaros dove to his left, gloved the line drive off the turf, got up and threw Baiardi out at first to prevent Union from getting the leadoff batter on to start the frame.

Union County Conference-Watchung Division Baseball

Union (3-5, 0-3) 000 002 0 – 2 2 2
Cranford (6-0, 4-0) 000 007 x – 7 4 0

WP: Ben Monahan. LP: Aiden Baiardi.

Singles: Union – Thomas Perrotto, Dylan Couto.
Cranford – Shea Grady 3.

Doubles: Union – None. Cranford – None.

Triples: Union – None. Cranford – None.

Home runs: Union – None. Cranford – Ryan Carracino.

Cranford starting pitcher:

Michael Zalinkanskas, junior RH: 5 and 2/3 innings, 81 pitches,
2 runs, 2 hits, 6 strikeouts, 2 walks, 2 hit batters.

Cranford relief pitcher:

Ben Monahan, senior RH: 1 and 1/3 innings, 12 pitches,
0 runs, 0 hits, 1 strikeout, 0 walks, 1 hit batter.

Union starting pitcher:

Aiden Baiardi, senior LH: 6 innings complete, 108 pitches,
7 runs, 4 hits, 9 strikeouts, 3 walks, 0 hit batters.

Photos by JR Parachini