By Bob Behre
The parts that make the Somerville machine churn effectively are deep and relentlessly efficient.
You never know who is next to step up and grab the controls when even its bulldog of a leader Thomas Babalis, the left-handed ace and No. 3 hitter, has to step aside.
When Babalis left the shop he had spilled his guts to the tune of 107 pitches and steered his charges to a 3-2 lead entering the seventh inning.
Closer-in-training Bobby Wortman stepped in and walked a tenuous tight rope before slamming the door on Somerville’s first-ever baseball state championship. When Wortman struck out the last two Allentown batters with the bases jammed to the gills in the top of the seventh inning, Somerville had capped a 20-5 season with the NJSIAA Group 3 championship.
The Somerville players stormed Wortman on the mound as if he had all their championship rings in his back pocket.
Babalis scattered seven hits over six innings, struck out eight and walked none in a masterpiece fit for a coal miner. Indeed, if you looked close enough, you could see the lunch pail hanging from Babalis’ belt loop. The big lefty attacked the strike zone so relentlessly that 78 of his 107 pitches – 73 percent – hit pay dirt. And that was against a lineup that laid waste to the Central Jersey, Group 3 field and defeated highly regarded Seneca, 13-0, in the Group 3 semifinal.
“I was throwing the two-seamer and curveball for strikes,” said Babalis, “and got the slider in their a few times. We were working the fastball inside a lot. I trusted my guys behind me. Dante (Bozzuti) made a nice catch in right to end the sixth.”
Babalis finished his afternoon with a 33-pitch sixth inning in which he stranded two Allentown runners after the Redbirds had scored an unearned run to draw within 3-2.
“You learn a lot about people in big games,” said Somerville coach Chris Banos. “Thomas has been locked in since March 2 and he’s been at his best in the all the big games.”
Still, the job wasn’t done until Wortman came in to close and test the outer limits of the Pioneer faithful’s cardiac health.
Wortman, a righthander who serves as the football team’s placekicker in his free time, surrendered a leadoff single to Dan Merkel, Allentown’s No. 9 hitter. Such is the defending Group 3 champion’s lineup depth. Wortman then walked leadoff batter Matt Tannenbaum on four pitches.
It was difficult to tell at this point whether Wortman was imploding or just invoking an evil sense of humor. Allentown (22-7) had its Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters at the ready with the tying and go-ahead runs aboard and none out.
Suddenly the command that had thus far eluded Wortman, arrived in the nick of time. He struck out Brandon Gaul on three pitches, the last one a fastball up.
“I had a sense of relief after the first strikeout,” said Wortman. You think?
Wortman then hit No. 3 hitter Chris Reeder with a first-pitch curveball that never broke. Taking the bat out of the dangerous Reeder’s hands wouldn’t have been a bad idea anyway. But Wortman had completely removed all wiggle room for Somerville.
Pitching coach Ryan Zamorsky paid a visit to calm Wortman. “He just told me to relax and change balls if I wanted to,” said Wortman, as if that particular part wasn’t allowing the Somerville machine to churn.
Wortman went back to work and struck out cleanup hitter Giuseppe Arcuri on a 1-2 fastball. Two outs. In stepped Mike Zupko, owner of a double and a single in his previous two at bats. Merkel crept off third base with the potential tying run less than 90 feet away.
Zupko worked the count to 2-2 before Wortman threw a two-seamer on the outside corner. He could only wave at it for strike three. Game over and championship run complete.
“Bobby had a little trouble with his curveball the first couple batters,” Banos deadpanned.
As usual, the contributions were many for Somerville, particularly during the Pioneers’ two-run rally in the bottom of the fifth that staked them to a 3-1 lead.
Leadoff hitter Devin Hack got it going with one out when he beat out a grounder in the shortstop hole. Then another fearless Pioneer cog, freshman Matt Miceli, pulled a deep shot into the left-center field gap for an RBI triple. The big hit put Somerville in front, 2-1, and chased Allentown starter Jack Nitti.
Preston Scott then latched onto a 3-1 pitch and ripped a double down the left field line to score Miceli for a 3-1 lead and provide the run that would prove decisive.
Allentown had just tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the fifth courtesy of some serious heads up base running by Austin Ferrier. Ferrier led off the inning with a single through the middle and raced all the way to third one out later on a wild pitch with Merkel at the plate. Merkel brought Ferrier home on a sac fly to right.
Somerville manufactured a run in its first at bat. Hack drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on Miceli’s sac bunt, took third on Babalis’ hard single to center field and scored on Scott’s fielder’s choice bouncer to the right side.
Allentown was seeking its third group championship, having won titles in 2008 and ’17. Nitti permitted three runs on six hits over 4.1 innings, striking out one and walking two.
For Babalis, the championship was a natural conclusion to a four-year journey to finely tune the Somerville machine.
“This is what we’ve been working for the past four years,” said Babalis. “We’re the only Group 3 school left standing in New Jersey. Coach Banos and (assistant) coach (Steve) DiTrolio came in with us our freshman year and here we are.”