By Bob Behre
Reliever Jack Brodsky’s four shutout innings gave Pascack Hills a chance and, as it turned out, the Cowboys best friend on Sunday may have been the NJSIAA’s pitch count rule, because that proved the only way of stopping Raritan’s righthander Jack Johnston.
Johnston left after throwing 112 pitches and surrendering a leadoff infield single to Mike Rodriguez in the top of the eighth inning of a 2-2 tie in the Group 2 championship game. He absorbed the loss after reliever Dan Vanmeerbeke walked two batters and plunked Chris Lum with a 3-2 pitch to force in the go-ahead run.
Raritan (21-6) still had a chance in the bottom of the eight after Alex Lamattina singled with two outs and Vanmeerbeke drew a walk. But Brodsky got D.J. Dekis to pop up in foul territory along the left side and Pascack Hills’ third baseman Rodriguez squeezed it for the final out.
Pascack Hills (30-2) entered the game as the No. 1 team in the NJ.com Top 20, so it appears it has locked up its first-ever statewide No. 1 ranking. Hunterdon Central, ranked No. 2, was set to play Westfield in the Group 4 final at 4 p.m. at Veteran’s Park in Hamilton, but rain forced a postponement to Monday at 6:30 p.m. The last four innings of the Group 2 final was played in a steady rain.
“You saw how hard it is to get the last out in a championship game,” said Brodsky. “I got the first two (in the eighth) but they got a hit and got something going. But I’ve been in pressure situations before. That was nothing new. I made my pitches and trusted by defense, which is the best around.”
Brodsky permitted just two hits in four shutout innings as he struck out four and walked one in relief of lefthander Ryan Ramsey. The Maryland-bound Ramsey, a junior, came in as the higher profile pitcher but he battled with command throughout a torturous four innings in which he permitted two unearned runs on just two hits and struck out seven. But Ramsey walked four and threw a grueling 91 pitches.
Raritan scored twice in the bottom of the third inning to tie the game at 2-2 and it was an inning that was a microcosm of Ramsey’s troubles. Tyler Bruno, Raritan’s leadoff hitter, opened the inning with a single to center field and Ryan Kasmer drew a four-pitch walk. Ramsey should have been out of the inning, though, after inducing a pop-up to second, a fly out to right field and a grounder to third base. But the grounder was booted to load the bases.
Ramsey then walked Vanmeerbeke to force home Bruno and shave the Pascack Hills lead to 2-1. He then uncorked a wild pitch on his first offering to Dekis as Kasmer raced home with the tying run. Ramsey threw 32 pitches in a scoreless first inning in which he walked two and hit a batter and threw 28 more in Raritan’s two-run third.
Ramsey singled to open the Cowboys’ two-run rally in the second that staked themselves to a 2-0 lead but was caught stealing. Chris Curcio, however, reached on an infield error before Lum chased him home with a long double down the left field line. Marc Hernandez followed with an RBI double of his own, this one a booming shot into the left-center field gap.
But Johnston did not allow a hit again until Rodriguez’s leadoff bouncer into the shortstop hole in the eighth.
“I was just trying to get on anyway I could to get something going,” said Rodriguez. “It was a 2-1 count and I was looing fastball and got one. I pulled it to the left side. I knew I had to do a hard 90 to beat it.” It wasn’t close.
Vanmeerbeke came in and walked Brandon Siegenthaler on five pitches. Ramsey bunted nicely down the first base side to move both runners into scoring position. Curcio then drew a five-pitch walk to load the bases. Lum then gamely battled the count to 3-2 before fouling off a pitch. Vandmeerbeke’s next pitch, a curveball that didn’t curve, hit Lum to force home Rodriguez with what proved to be the winning run.
Brodsky completed his fourth shutout inning in the bottom of the eighth and Pascack Hills celebrated like a No. 1 team.
Johnston’s sparkling performance was not lost in the loss.
“Jack did a heck of a job,” said Raritan coach Jeff Struble. “He’s a pitbull.” Johnston permitted three runs, only two earned, on five hits, struck out eight and walked none. “He’s never too high or too low and he always takes care of all the little things.”
Raritan had an opportunity in the bottom of the seventh when Johnston, the No. 9 hitter, hit a leadoff single through the middle. It was Johnston’s second hit of the game. With leadoff man Bruno now at the plate, Struble elected to let his best hitter swing away instead of sacrificing.
“I, 100 percent, want Tyler hitting in that spot,” said Struble. “I’ve never asked him to bunt in that spot and I wasn’t going to there. It wouldn’t have been fair. We had a better shot of Tyler shooting one into the gap in that spot.”
Bruno hit a hard shot back to the box that Brodsky turned into a 1-6-3 double play. Kasmer then popped out to third to end the inning.