Connor Byrne was lights out, once again, but he found himself in a scoreless duel with Rutgers Prep’s heralded freshman Zach Fronio entering his team’s fourth at bat.
But Byrne, who knows pitching, also knows the dangerous and deep Red Devils lineup. Time, he knows, is always working against Ridge’s opponent. Tic, toc. Here comes the Red Devils.
“Sooner or later our guys are going to hurt you,” said Byrne.
Boom! Three runs in the bottom of the fourth. Boom! Three runs in the bottom of the fifth. There you are. All Byrne had to do from there was be Connor Byrne and he and his teammates would be hoisting the Somerset County Tournament trophy in good time.
“We were able to take some good swings,” said cleanup hitter Mike Olivo, who was right in the middle of both rallies. “We have a deep lineup and we can trust a lot of guys.”
The guys with the bats trusted the big guy with the reliable right arm, as well. Byrne (9-1) pitched a complete game two-hit shutout, striking out 10 and walking one, a gold star performance in Ridge’s 6-0 victory and seventh SCT championship on Monday night at TD Bank Park in Bridgewater.
“Our coaches did a great job calling pitches,” said Byrne. “We were attacking their hitters.” Byrne did an excellent job, too, of keeping the Rutgers Prep hitters guessing with a fastball he made a living with at the top of the strike zone and a slider that made frequent and uncomfortable appearances tailing away from hitters. He tacked on a few well-timed curveballs for good measure.
“I was trying to work down but was hitting the zone up with my fastballs,” said Byrne, who struck out six of eight batters he faced from the final out of the first inning to the first out of the fourth. He would then strike out the side in a gritty 25-pitch top of the seventh when Rutgers Prep (18-4) drew its first walk and Evan Laub ripped a single through the left side for his team’s second hit. It was the first inning Rutgers Prep got two runners aboard.
Byrne, who threw an economical 79 pitches through six innings, finished with 104 pitches after Nick Baldev swung through a 3-2 fastball to end the game at the home of the Double-A Somerset Patriots.
Olivo triggered the rally in the fourth when he shot a liner over first base and into the right field corner for a one-out double. It was Ridge’s first hit of the game off Fronio, already committed to college.
“I respect their pitcher. He’s a young guy and a Maryland commit,” said Olivo. “We had a slow start. But I’ve been working on taking it the other way and was able to get it down the line.”
Olivo then tagged and took third on a medium fly ball to right field by Matt Aber. “I’m confident in myself in that spot to make it to third base. I never hesitate to take the extra base,” said Olivo.
The advance proved important when Julian Kielb’s two-out hot grounder to third was thrown away, allowing Olivo to score the game’s first run. Equally important, it seemed to release a contagion in the bottom half of the Ridge lineup.
George Busnach lifted a high pop between shortstop and left field that fell for a hustle double and an RBI as Kielb raced home from second. Luke Somelofske then drove a picture perfect liner into right-center field for the third double of the inning, chasing Busnach home for a 3-0 lead.
“Hitting is contagious and our lineup is so deep,” said Ridge coach Tom Blackwell. “You just know they are going to break through.”
The Red Devils (20-2) continued to break through in the fifth inning. Brain Leitz was hit by a pitch with one out before Olivo stepped in with two outs. The center fielder would go to the right side again, and again with painful results for Rutgers Prep. Olivo lined a shot into right-center for an RBI double that ignited a series of copycats. His second double of the game raised his batting average to .423.
Aber chased Olivo home with a double down the left field line, then Kielb doubled to deep straightaway left field to score Aber for a 6-0 lead. Ridge had accumulated six doubles in two innings.
“Fronio has a good curveball but we kept grinding,” said Blackwell. “We did have good at bats early before we got it going.”
Fronio surrendered six runs, three of which were earned, over five innings, striking out five, walking one and hitting Leitz twice with pitches. A 26-pitch fourth inning and a 19-pitch fifth inning jumped Fronio’s pitch count up to 81. Of course, he was very nearly out of the fourth inning unscathed.
“He’s an unbelievable pitcher,” said Byrne, a junior bound for Siena. “He’s accomplished so much already. We’ll be battling each other some more next year.”
Fronio is 4-3 on the season with a 1.50 ERA. He has 53 strikeouts and 15 walks in 37.1 innings. The victory for Byrne was his ninth straight. He boasts a 1.46 ERA and has 70 strikeouts and 23 walks in 52.2 innings.
Andrew Parisi had the first hit for Rutgers Prep, a booming grounds rule double to left field with two outs in the first inning. Byrne, however, struck out the next batter looking at a curveball to end the threat.
No one else reached second base against Byrne until Anthony Brigante in the seventh. He drew a one-out walk and moved to second on Laub’s single. Byrne outdid his first-inning effort, striking out the next two batters to end the game.
Tournament History: Expect this very young Rutgers Prep club to be back in the mix next year when it will, again, chase its second SCT title. The Somerset-based Prep school won its only county title in 2017.
Ridge won its previous Somerset County Tournament titles in 1976, 1980, ‘84, ‘85, ‘89 and 2011. This was Ridge coach Tom Blackwell’s second county title.