By Bob Behre
Lefthander Nolan Leger found his breaking ball just in time and the Immaculata bats erupted for eight runs in the bottom of the fifth on the way to a 10-2 victory over Watchung Hills on Thursday at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
Leger, a senior, struck out four and walked two and retired the last 15 batters he faced. His batterymate Mike Nee triggered the eight-run rally in the fifth with a one-out solo home run to left field.
Unranked Immaculata improved to 4-1, its only loss an extra-inning setback to Hunterdon Central, ranked No. 5 in the NJ.com Top 20. Watchung Hills fell to 2-3.
Leger surrendered two runs on four consecutive Watchung Hills singles in the third as Immaculata fell behind, 2-1. But Leger turned his fortunes around right at that point, getting the next three batters in order. More impressive, he ran that streak to 15 as he threw just seven, eight, eight and four pitches respectively in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
“I wasn’t getting my breaking ball in the dirt early on,” said Leger. “I was leaving pitches up and not finishing off hitters.” Leger admitted the strong wind blowing in his face on Diamond Nation’s Field 1 was giving his breaking ball fits. “I tried to play around with my mechanics to adjust to it.”
That adjustment left Watchung Hills’ hitters stymied. Mike Murray, the Warriors No. 3 hitter had singled through the middle to score both of his team’s runs with no outs in the third. Watchung Hills looked primed for more runs in the inning, but Leger’s curveball finally gained the bite he was searching for and he retired the next three batters in order.
“Nolan was getting guys 0-2 and his pitches were a little too good. He wasn’t finishing batters off,” said Immaculata coach Kevin Cust. “It was good to see him get confident and lock in. It gave us a shot at a big inning.”
That big inning would come in the fifth; an inning after Justin Pinckert had tied the game at 2-2 with a two-out RBI single to center field. Then Nee would get things going for the Spartans in the fifth in a noisy way.
“He threw me a dirt ball and I knew he was coming back with a fastball,” said Nee of Watchung Hills’ righthander Nick McGann. “I just got the barrel out and let the wind take it.”
The home run easily cleared the left field fence and gave Immaculata a 3-2 lead. McGann, who battled gamely to that point against the rugged Spartans lineup, would not get another out. He hit Felix Diaz and Leger on consecutive pitches and walked Peter Gallo to load the bases. The bottom half of the Immaculata order then cashed in the opportunity.
Alex Antigua singled to center to score Diaz then Colin Mullin gave the Spartans a 6-2 lead and knocked McGann out of the game with a two-run double. Leger came home on a wild pitch and the lead ballooned to 8-2 when Pinckert reached on an infield error. Ryan Kabus, the No. 9 hitter, and leadoff batter Mike Golankiewicz followed with back-to-back RBI singles to cap the eight-run uprising.
“We can put some runs up,” said Leger, the main beneficiary of the Spartans onslaught.
Golankiewicz and Nee opened the bottom of the first with back-to-back singles and it was Leger who delivered a one-out RBI double down the right field line to put Immaculata on the board. Watchung Hills’ two-run rally in the third was set up by consecutive inning-opening singles by Matt Alarcon, the No. 9 hitter, Tyler Riley and Andrew Martins.
Leger threw a tidy 88 pitches thanks to a ridiculously miniscule 27 pitches over the final four innings.
“We had some good at bats early and hit some shots,” said Cust. “Their center fielder (James McKenna) made some nice plays. I think we needed to adjust to the breaking ball and we did the third time through the order.”
Immaculata’s third baseman Diaz had a fine game defensively, showcasing a powerful arm from the hot corner. Diaz’s strong throw from deep at third just got Jeff Poggi at first to end the third and strand the bases loaded.