UNION, NJ — The initial week of the season was one to put up on a pedestal.
For the Union Farmers, its meaning was of extremely high significance, as they were desperate to get out to a good start, following a year in which victories, only four total, were as rare as triple plays.
Union High School’s fourth and final game of last week’s opening foray was more than three hours in length and was not decided until the host Farmers came out on top in the bottom of the ninth by the score of 4-3.
Visiting Elizabeth High School never trailed, but hung tough and managed to come back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 to force extras.
However, it was a single through the infield hole to left by senior Christopher Thomas which brought Union the hard-fought triumph.
With three Union pitchers combining for 18 strikeouts — starter Aiden Baiardi fanned 14 in six innings, first reliever Anthony Magliozzi got one in a third of an inning and second relief pitcher Gabriel Gobbi fanned the final three in two and two-thirds innings — head coach Angel Navarrete could not rest easy if Union let this one slip away.
“No, no, we had to have this one,” Navarette said as Union improved to 3-1 on the young 2023 campaign.
Union went 3-0 against teams from the Union County Conference’s Mountain Division last week, beating Linden High School 8-0 on the road, Oratory Preparatory School 11-5 in its home-opener and then Elizabeth.
In between the Oratory Prep and Elizabeth contests, Union was thwarted at home by Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School 12-4 in its first UCC-Watchung Division clash.
Still, all in all, it was a very good week for the Farmers. Last year’s squad was 1-4 before it won its second game and 2-7 before it captured its third triumph.
“We have more resources this year. Last year, we couldn’t get in the gym and hit,” Baiardi said. “We feel that we can win some big games this year.”
Given a second opportunity, Thomas was patient at the plate, ready to devour the pitch he was seeking to smash.
For the second time in three innings, Thomas was up with the bases loaded and one out and the Farmers a hit away from winning.
It was Elizabeth head coach Matt Belford who decided to pitch to Thomas in both the seventh and ninth innings, after intentionally walking fellow Union senior Baiardi ahead of him.
In the seventh inning, the Minutemen pulled off a rare 4-2-5 double play to send the game to extra innings, with a bloop falling past Elizabeth relief pitcher Yadi Mateo and in front of the Elizabeth shortstop and second baseman.
“I’m not that good a coach to say that they just waited for the ball to drop, so they could then try to make a play,” Belford said. “It was a matter of them looking at each other and wondering who was going to pick it up. As it turned out, it was a fine play for us, with the throw home the key part of the play.”
Now, with the score still 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth and the bags full again with just one down, Thomas fouled off Mateo’s first pitch. Thomas was ready for another fastball and got it on pitch No. 2.
This time, Thomas drilled a shot through the third base and shortstop hole into left field, scoring Dylan Couto from third to give Union a wild, 4-3 triumph in the Union County Conference-crossover clash at Union High School’s Gordon R. LeMatty Field on Saturday, April 8.
Elizabeth finished its first week of the season at 2-2.
Union was scheduled to host Franklin High School on Monday, April 10, and then play at UCC Watchung Division foe Arthur L. Johnson High School on Tuesday, April 11. The Farmers are then scheduled to play at Union Catholic High School on Thursday, April 13, at 11 a.m., and at Watchung Division rival Cranford High School on Friday, April 14, at 10:30 a.m.
Elizabeth was to host Union Catholic High School on Tuesday, April 11, play at Summit High School on Wednesday, April 12, and then host Kearny High School on Saturday, April 15, at 10 a.m.
“In the ninth, I was just trying to get my swing down, because in the seventh, it was too long,” Thomas said. “I was ready for a curveball, but looking for a fastball, and I got one and was able to hit it pretty good.”
Although Baiardi did not get the win — it went to Gobbi — he turned in a masterful performance. In six innings complete, the lefty struck out 14, walked only two and gave up two runs on five hits in a 108-pitch outing.
Baiardi, who sprained his ankle on Tuesday, April 4, said he felt fine beginning on Friday, April 7. He struck out 10 swinging and four looking. Baiardi struck out the side in the first, second, third and sixth innings, his fastball just as fast in the sixth as it was when the game started.
“I felt good from the beginning and knew I would dominate,” Baiardi said. “I got a lot of adrenaline from my fastball and never let go.”
Baiardi could be in line to start this week’s Watchung Division game at Cranford.
“He’s a gamer, for sure,” Navarrete said. “He’s ready to go and works the zone. Today, it was first-pitch strikes and location of his fastball. All of his pitches were working.”
Elizabeth tied the game at 3-3 with one out in the top of the seventh, when senior first baseman Justin Belford, son of the head coach, walked on four pitches with the bases loaded. In the top of the fifth, Belford produced an RBI-6-3 groundout to pull Elizabeth to within 3-2.
Union scored the game’s first two runs unearned in the bottom of the second on an errant throw. Elizabeth got the game to 2-1 in the third on a double steal, where the runner just beat the throw home. Union went ahead 3-1 in the bottom of the third, when Matt Perrotto scored from third, after Elizabeth failed to pick the Union runner off at first base.
After Baiardi was done pitching, Magliozzi failed to get the save in the seventh, although the one out he did get was striking out Elizabeth leadoff batter Angel Deaza on just three pitches and the final one looking on a low fastball. In three trips to the plate against Baiardi, Deaza banged out two doubles in between striking out swinging on a fastball that was not quite as sharp, but fooled Deaza when he swung.
Deaza was the only player in the Elizabeth lineup that really gave Baiardi a difficult time.
“Baiardi is one of the better arms in our league and Union’s best hitter, which is why I intentionally walked him twice,” Belford said. “We were lucky to be in a 3-3 game, the way he pitched for them.”
Starter Alex Crass and first reliever Emmanuel Nunez also pitched well for Elizabeth, Crass going the first four innings and Nunez the fifth and sixth, which were both scoreless.
“Crass was cruising there for a while, before he got into a little trouble, and Nunez did well to keep Union from scoring,” Belford said.
Union County conference-crossover baseball at Gordon R. Lematty Field
Elizabeth (2-2) 0 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 -– 3 5 3
Union (3-1) 0 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 – 4 6 0
WP: Gabriel Gobbi. LP: Yadi Mateo.
Singles: Elizabeth – Miguel Rivera, Justin Belford.
Union – Aiden Baiardi 2, Matt Perrotto 2, Johnny Velez,
Doubles: Elizabeth – Angel Deaza 2, Devin Rojas. Union – None.
Alex Crass: 4 innings, 82 pitches, 3 runs – 1 earned, 3 hits,
4 strikeouts, 3 walks, one hit batter.
Emmanuel Nunez: 2 innings, 14 pitches, 0 runs, 1 hit,
0 strikeouts, 0 walks.
Yadi Mateo (LP): 2 and 1/3 innings, 45 pitches, 1 run, 3 hits,
3 strikeouts, 4 walks-two intentional, two hit batters.
Aiden Baiardi: 6 innings, 108 pitches, 2 runs, 5 hits,
14 strikeouts, 2 walks.
Anthony Magliozzi: 1/3 innings, 20 pitches, 1 run, 0 hits,
1 strikeout, 3 walks, 1 hit batter.
Gabriel Gobbi (WP): 2 and 2/3 innings, 43 pitches, 0 runs, 0 hits,
3 strikeouts, 3 walks – 1 intentional.
Photos by JR Parachini