SCOTCH PLAINS – Elizabeth quickly had first and second and nobody out in the top of the first after leadoff batter Izzy Santana smoked a single to left and lefty swinging Andre Tirso walked.
Then Scotch Plains pitcher Nick Merkel noticed something behind him.
“I saw the runner at second base jump, he was leaning,” Merkel said.
The first out Merkel recorded was picking off Santana at second, with Scotch Plains senior shortstop Jonny Ramos there to put the tag on. Merkel would later pick off a second baserunner, nabbing a Minutemen player at first base in the fifth.
“The one in the first inning was big,” Merkel said. “That got me amped up. I was fine later.”
Although Merkel, after the pickoff at second, would issue a wild pitch and then an opposite field RBI-single to right by Josh Ciano that gave Elizabeth an early lead, he was more than solid the rest of the way.
Merkel didn’t give up a run or hit the remainder of the game, tossing a five-inning, two-hitter that included five strikeouts and three walks in beating visiting Elizabeth 11-1 in Thursday’s five-inning Union County Conference-Watchung Division clash that was the home-opener for the victorious Raiders.
Scotch Plains, coming off a tough, bottom-of-the-seventh 6-5 loss at Cranford in Monday’s season-opener, improved to 1-1 overall and 1-1 in the Watchung Division.
Elizabeth, which opened at home Monday with an 8-2 loss to defending Watchung Division champion Governor Livingston, fell to 0-2 overall and 0-2 in the Watchung.
Merkel kept Elizabeth batters off balance at times with an off-speed pitch that caught three of them looking for strikeouts. Four of his five strikeouts were looking, with a fastball accounting for the other strikeout looking.
“My curve was real good,” Merkel said. “In warm-ups it was a little shaky, but in the game it was good.”
When Scotch Plains came to the plate in the bottom of the first its initial five batters hit safely en route to a seven-run explosion that gave the Raiders the lead for good.
Ramos began with an opposite field triple that he blasted over the head of the Elizabeth right fielder. Lefty batter Dean Kirian followed with a first-pitch RBI-single to center to knot the game at 1-1.
Willy Gale then singled to center and moved to second base when his hit continued to get past the Elizabeth outfielder, allowing Kirian to score to make it 2-1. Michael Dieu followed with an opposite field RBI-single to right for a 3-1 Raider lead. Designated hitter Angelo DiNizo walked to make it first and second.
Josh Canavan then reached on an infield error to load the bases, still none out. With Tyler Stines up now, a wild pitch made the score 4-1, with runners moving to second and third.
Stines – now against Elizabeth’s second of six pitchers – then delivered a bloop, opposite field two-run double to right to make it 6-1. Two batters later, after Elizabeth recorded the inning’s first out, No. 9 batter Matt Delgado drove in his team’s seventh run on a shortstop-to-first base ground out.
Ramos came up again in the first and singled to left for his second hit of the inning.
“We were ready to look for the first pitch and turn on it,” said Ramos, who also walked in the third and reached on an error in the fifth.
Two of the six hits Scotch Plains produced in the first inning came on the first pitch. Both hits Kirian had on the day were of the first-pitch variety.
Kirian, again on the first pitch, delivered a three-run triple in the third that put Scotch Plains ahead 10-1. His shot reached the bottom of the center field fence on the second bounce, right in front of the 365-foot sign.
“If I see the first pitch in the general area it’s always nice to hit a fastball to start,” Kirian said.
The reason the division contest concluded with one out in the bottom of the fifth was because Scotch Plains pinch hitter Patrick Cuccurullo was able to line a bases-loaded single to center for the game’s final run.
Scotch Plains received a quality start from Merkel, scored 11 runs on 11 hits and also – which was just as important – did not commit an error.
“Elizabeth was aggressive right away, so getting the runner at second was big,” Scotch Plains head coach Joe Higgins said of Merkel’s first pickoff. “It was a heads-up play by both Merkel and Ramos.”
Higgins reported that Scotch Plains made four errors in its loss at Cranford, so playing cleanly in the field Thursday was much-needed improvement.
“That was important,” Higgins said. “Ramos is our leader on defense, he sets the tone.”
NOTES: Scotch Plains is scheduled to play at Union Catholic Friday at 4 p.m. and then host Union City Saturday at 11 a.m.
Elizabeth is scheduled to play at New Providence Friday at 4:15 p.m. and then on Saturday host Dickinson at 11 a.m. and then Bishop Ahr at 3 p.m. at Williams Field.
Former MLB standout and All-State player Jeffrey Hammonds, Scotch Plains Class of 1989, will have his high school jersey No. 11 retired May 18 when the Raiders host Allentown at 11 a.m. that Saturday.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-WATCHUNG DIVISION
Elizabeth (0-2, 0-2) 1 0 0 0 0 – 1 2
Scotch Plains (1-1, 1-1) 7 0 3 0 1 – 11 11
SCOTCH PLAINS PITCHER:
Nick Merkel, senior RH (1-0)
5 innings complete, 74 pitches.
Pitch count: 1-20. 2-10. 3-19. 4-12. 5-13. Total: 74.
1 run (earned), 2 hits (both singles).
5 strikeouts (1 swinging and 4 looking), 3 walks (2 on 3-2 counts, 1 on 3-1).
Merkel retired the side in order in the second and fourth.
He picked off a runner at second in the first and a runner at first in the fifth.
1-Josh Ciano, junior RH (0-1) – pitched to first 7 batters of first
13-Eriberto Reyes, senior RH – 2 innings, no runs
20-Justin Gonzalez, senior RH – 1/3 of an inning
3-Brandon Vasquez, junior RH – 1 2/3 innings, no runs
15-Elvis Pulido, junior LH – pitched to first 2 batters of fifth
4-Santos Colon Jr., junior RH – 1/3 of an inning, no runs
Elizabeth – Izzy Santana, Josh Ciano.
Scotch Plains – Dean Kirian, Willy Gale, Chris Smith, Jonny Ramos,
Willy Gale, Michael Dieu, Angelo DiNizo, Patrick Cuccurullo.
Elizabeth – None.
Scotch Plains – Tyler Stines.
Elizabeth – None.
Scotch Plains – Jonny Ramos, Dean Kirian.
Elizabeth – None.
Scotch Plains – None.
21-Izzy Santana, senior, catcher
10-Andre Tirso, senior center field
1-Josh Ciano, junior, pitcher
3-Brandon Vasquez, junior, right field
18-Yoidan Fernandez, sophomore, shortstop
6-Matthew Del Sol, junior, second base
11-Efrain Correa, junior, first base
5-Jorge Correa, junior, designated hitter
20-Justin Gonzalez, senior, third base
Did not bat:
7-Samuel Rivera, junior, left field
SCOTCH PLAINS RAIDERS:
1-Jonny Ramos, senior, shortstop
9-Dean Kirian, junior, right field
22-Willy Gale, senior, center field
2-Ricky Lopez, senior, pinch hitter
15-Michael Dieu, senior, first base
40-Danny Wilkinson, senior, pinch hitter
10-Angelo DiNizo, senior, designated hitter
32-Patrick Cuccurullo, senior, pinch hitter
3-Josh Canavan, senior, left field
24-Tyler Stines, senior, third base
6-Chris Smith, sophomore, catcher
5-Matt Delgado, junior, second base
7-Patrick Dembiec, pinch hitter
Did not bat:
20-Nick Merkel, senior, pitcher