By Bob Behre
If Justin Kosinski wasn’t striking out someone with his curveball he was setting up his fastball with it during a gritty six-hitter that enabled Hunterdon Central, No. 5 in the NJ.com Top 20, to edge No. 19 Pope John, 2-0, on Saturday in Flemington.
The victory gave host Hunterdon Central a sweep of its Red Devil Classic and extended its streak of eight straight wins to begin the season. The Red Devils nipped Trenton Catholic, 1-0, in its first game of the tournament. Pope John had a battle on its hands in its opener, too, before prevailing 7-6 over Robbinsville.
Kosinski struck out five and walked three and had to grind through a first-and-second, none out situation in the top of the seventh inning before getting Pope John’s dangerous leadoff batter Eddie Ventresca on a groundout to second to end the game. It was Kosinski’s 105th pitch.
Kosinski (2-0), a senior, had to outduel Pope John’s junior lefty Jake Wells, who gave the Red Devils fits much of the game. Wells limited Hunterdon Central to two runs, one of which was earned, on four hits. He struck out four and walked one. Wells threw and economical 78 pitches in six innings.
“Jake is tough,” said Pope John coach Vinnie Bello. “He pitches backward so it’s tough to figure him out.”
Kosinski fed Pope John a steady diet of curveballs after he got in the jam in the seventh.
“I was spotting up the curveball and getting swings and misses,” said Kosinski. “So we stayed with it.”
Luke Chanault singled hard to left-center field to open the seventh against Kosinski and Dan Sanville reached on an infield error to put the tying runs aboard with none out. Kosinski, however, got out of it by retiring the next three batters in order.
“We weren’t planning to push Justin to that many pitches,” said Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi. “But he was on a roll, throwing strikes and he had all of the momentum.”
Hunterdon Central’s catcher Luke Longo triggered his team’s decisive two-run rally leading off the fourth when he laced an opposite field double down the right field line. Colin Mason then lifted a fairly deep fly to right-center to enable courtesy runner Bryce Totten to advance to third. Third baseman Dan Rini followed with a single through the right side on the first pitch from Wells as Totten trotted home with the game’s first run.
“I saw Totten on third base, so I tried to get something in air to get him home,” said Rini. “But I rolled it over a little and was lucky to hit it hard enough to get it through the hole.”
Dan Icaza then hit into a force-out but made up for it by stealing second base with Tyler Cassella at the plate. Cassella then reached on a throwing error that allowed Icaza to score all the way from second with the Red Devils second run.
Pope John (5-1) nearly scored a run in the sixth when Chris Sabo singled to center field with two outs and Joe Millar on second. But center fielder David Cucci threw a perfect strike to cutoff man Pete Cosentino, the first baseman, who turned and fired home where Longo just barely tagged Millar in time for the third out.
The Lions also stranded two runners in the first inning when Sabo’s long shot to right-center field was chased down by right fielder Pete Ciuffreda for the third out. Ventresca and Bello (2-for-3) singled with one out in the third but Millar hit a bouncer to Cassella at second and the sophomore started a picturesque 4-6-3 double play with shortstop Garrison LeGros to end the inning.
Kosinski issued each of his three walks in the first two innings as he tried to harness his curveball. The first sign of trouble for Pope John came when the Montclair State-bound righthander struck out two batters looking at the curveball in the second inning.
“The curveball wasn’t really there at that point,” said Kosinski. “But I gained confidence with it later. The big thing is I know I can trust my defense behind me.”
NOTES: Bello, a 6-2, 190 center fielder, is the top-ranked freshmen in New Jersey. He is the son of Pope John coach Vinnie Bello … Wells is the Lions No. 2 pitcher behind senior righty Ethan O’Connor who is committed to Lafayette. … Kosinski is Hunterdon Central’s No. 3 pitcher.
… Hunterdon Central’s bench is a very animated one and it led to some not so pleasant interaction between the two teams in the top of the sixth inning. Hunterdon Central’s choice of music prior to the start of the bottom of the inning was, perhaps, unintentionally hilarious. It was the 1975 hit, by the band War, “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” The song was remade by Smash Mouth in 1997. No, Diamond Nation.com is not beyond educating on tunes.