By Bob Behre
You get the feeling D.J. Gonnelli of Gov. Livingston could paint your house in one afternoon. That is if his tidy five-hitter against Westfield in the Union County Tournament championship game is any indication of his overall efficiency.
Gonnelli (5-0) struck out five and walked none in a stifling 73-pitches that included 55 strikes as third-seeded Gov. Livingston defeated top-seeded Westfield, 6-2, to nail down its second UCT title in three years on Monday at Kean University’s Jim Hynes Stadium.
Westfield defeated Cranford, 6-3, in last year’s final for its 15th UCT crown. Gov. Livingston won its first county championship in 2016, defeating Scotch Plains.
“These guys have been together for three years and they’re gamers,” said Gov. Livingston coach Chris Roof. “I wouldn’t be surprised by anyone in our lineup coming up with the big hit in a big game.”
Center fielder Jack Pedini, Gov. Livingston’s No. 7 hitter, certainly delivered a big one in the top of the sixth inning. Pedini stepped in with two outs, the scored tied 2-2 and Tyler McCulloch – remember that name – on second base. Pedini fell behind 1-2 in the count before fouling off two pitches.
“He had a good mix, so I was just reacting to the pitch, not guessing,” said Pedini of Westfield righthander Michael Carlone, who boasted a nasty curveball. “I got a fastball inside and got out in front of it.”
Pedini rocked a single to left field that scored McCulloch with the go-ahead run.
Gov. Livingston (20-2-1) has earned its keep this season on the strength of a deep and punishing lineup while a strong but not necessarily electric pitching staff has indeed been a critical ingredient to what is now a 17-game winning streak.
Without Gonnelli’s pinpoint command of the strike zone and the courage to challenge the aggressive Westfield lineup, Gov. Livingston could well have lost this one. Gonnelli and Carlone surrendered two runs apiece in the first inning before settling into an entertaining pitcher’s duel.
Carlone limited Gov. Livingston to four hits through the first five innings before the Highlanders finally got to him in their final two at bats.
“We knew they were a very aggressive lineup,” said Gonnelli. “We had a great scouting report on them and expected them to attack early in the count.”
A trio of defensive gems helped keep Westfield off the board after the first inning. Gov. Livingston’s third baseman Drew Compton made a diving stop of an Andrew Caminiti grounder in the third inning before gunning him out at first. Compton made another nice play on a Caminiti slow bouncer leading off the sixth. And right fielder Will Jennings chased down a Chris Wagner bomb to the 375-foot sign in right-center field leading off the fourth.
“I didn’t have my curveball in the first inning,” said Gonnelli, “but I found it and it became my bread-and-butter pitch later. Gonnelli, in fact, retired nine straight batters from the second out of the first inning and faced just three more than the minimum over the final 6.2 innings. He threw nine, five, six, 11 and nine pitches in the second-through-sixth innings, respectively. That’s 40 pitches in five innings.
“My defense made great plays behind me and I trusted them,” said Gonnelli.
Through all that, the game was certainly not in-hand as Gov. Livingston carried a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth when Westfield had its Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters coming to the plate.
After Compton’s nifty play on Caminiti recorded the first out of the sixth, Gonnelli got Jake Lerie to fly out to center field. The dangerous lefty-hitting Wagner then ripped his second single of the game to right field. But Gonnelli induced a pop-up to shortstop by Jake Vall-Llobera to avoid further trouble. Still, Gov. Livingston owed their pitcher a little more offensive support to make Westfield’s final at bat less adventurous.
Ryan Davey (2-for-3), the Highlanders No. 9 hitter, led off the seventh with a bloope single into right field. Carlone, who had started the seventh by throwing his 92nd pitch, walked Compton and Stephen Reid, the Nos. 2 and 3 hitters, to load the bases with one out. Westfield drew its infield in and Gonnelli lined out to second baseman Mike Knapp.
Carlone was almost out of trouble and the dangerous Westfield lineup lurked.
In stepped McCulloch, who already had two singles, an RBI and a run-scored. He promptly singled through the middle of the diamond to score Davey and extend the Gov. Livingston lead to 4-2. Westfield shortstop Caminiti made a diving stop on McCulloch hard hit ball to force Compton to stop at third and Reid to put the brakes on at second base.
“I was just looking for a good pitch to hit,” said McCulloch. “I was looking for a fastball but got a curveball and adjusted.”
Jennings, however, delivered the backbreaker when he laced a 1-1 fastball into left field to score two runs and boost the lead to 6-2.
“I give a lot of the credit to our pitching coach, Matt Rago,” said Roof. “We lost our top four arms from last year and returned just 30 innings. Rago put it together. We don’t have radar gun guys, just three or four good high school pitchers who compete.”
NOTES: Compton, just a junior and bound for Georgia Tech, recorded career hit No. 100 with a single through the right side in the third inning. … Reid, who boasts 11 HRs on the season, drew a pair of walks, scored twice and was robbed of a hit in the fifth on center fielder Steve Barden’s beautiful diving catch. … Gov. Livingston’s leadoff batter Danny Serretti singled stole second and scored when Carlone uncorked two wild pitches in the first inning. McCulloch drove home the second run of the inning on a two-out single through the right side. … Westfield (14-9) answered in the bottom of the first inning with Wagner’s RBI single and Vall-Llobera’s sac fly. Matt McIntyre and Caminiti had opened the inning with singles off Gonnelli. Three of the five hits off Gonnelli came in the first inning. … Gov. Livingston won the rubber match of the 2018 series. Westfield defeated the Highlanders, 8-7, on April 10 and Gov. Livingston rolled to an 11-1 victory over the Blue Devils on May 8 when the Highlanders hit six home runs.