They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds, well, familiarity.
Ridge had defeated Skylands Conference rival Bridgewater three times this season entering the teams’ NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 quarterfinal yesterday in Basking Ridge.
That familiarity made for a brilliantly entertaining state tournament game for the fans and an inning-by-inning pressure cooker for the combatants before Matt Shawah hit a bouncer toward the shortstop hole that scored courtesy runner Brian Capato with the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The 2-1 walk-off victory sends Ridge (24-3), No. 6 in the NJ.com Top 20, to the sectional semifinals against Woodbridge on Tuesday. There is more familiarity in the bracket. Fifth-ranked Hunterdon Central and Watchung Hills of the Skyland Conference square off in the other semifinal.
“It wasn’t about trying to beat Bridgewater four times,” said Ridge’s ace Connor Byrne, “it was about winning one game. In the state tournament every game is like a wild card game.”
Shawah’s walk-off ended what had been a terrific pitcher’s duel between the junior righty Byrne and Bridgewater-Raritan’s junior lefty Jason Cozzi. For Byrne it was more of the same of what we’ve seen in 2022 of the Siena bound hurler. In Cozzi’s case, it was surely his career best effort, especially coming against the No. 6 team in the state.
“I was staying with my two-seam and four-seam fastballs,” said Cozzi. “I only threw about five off-speed pitches all game.”
The teams had entered the bottom of the sixth knotted in a 0-0 deadlock as each team’s ace contained a potent opposing lineup. Bridgewater-Raritan (15-13), in fact, had gotten the barrel of the bat on more offerings by Byrne than had Ridge had against Cozzi to that point. But the stubborn Byrne wriggled out of trouble a couple times.
In the bottom of the sixth, Cozzi had to contend with the top of the Ridge lineup, a group that always seems on the edge of an explosion. But this rally would more resemble a beating with a ball of yarn.
Shawah drew a leadoff walk on a 3-2 pitch. Brian Leitz bunted him over and, with two outs, cleanup hitter Mike Olivo, he of the prodigious .429 batting average and 9 extra-base hits, hit a bleeder through the right side and into right field for an RBI single and a 1-0 Ridge lead.
It appeared that lone run would hold up when Byrne struck out the first two Bridgewater batters of the seventh as his pitch count reached 101. But the Panthers weren’t done. Matt Moore, Bridgewater’s No. 8 hitter, slashed a double down the left field line on a 3-2 pitch from Byrne, now at 107 pitches.
Byrne could still go after one more batter for the final out with the NJSIAA imposed pitch limit at 110, but his coach, Tom Blackwell, came and got him for righty Brendan Callanan.
“Coach made the right decision there,” said Byrne. “I was running out of gas and we had a fresh arm.” Callanan had closed out Byrne’s 3-1 victory over Bridgewater in the Somerset County Tournament semifinals and started and picked up the victory in his team’s 10-2 victory over the Panthers on April 18. So, Callanan had his own familiarity with Bridgewater.
Callanan would draw pinch-hitter Tim Travisano and get to a 1-2 count – the second time Ridge was one strike away from closing out the victory – before Travisano upset the applecart and singled to right field to score Moore and tie this now truly insane quarterfinal at 1-1. Callanan got out of it from there and up came the Red Devils to try to walk it off.
Cozzi, who had thrown an extremely economical 58 pitches and allowed just one hit through five innings, had ticked up to 82 after the busy sixth by Ridge. The junior then retired the first two batters in the seventh on just seven pitches. Cozzi was in good shape, and a quick out here would set him up for a possible eighth inning. But he walked George Busnach on a 3-1 pitch and the inning quickly turned.
Cozzi had walked three and hit a batter through the first five innings but none had hurt him. In fact, he walked Callanan leading off the fourth then hit Olivo with a pitch. But he got out of it with a strikeout and a stirring 6-unassisted-3 double play by shortstop Moore.
Cozzi went 2-2 on Luke Somelofske before the right fielder singled through the left side. He then walked No. 9 hitter Andrew Shawah to load the bases and flip the lineup to younger brother Matt.
“He missed one away on the first pitch,” said Matt Shawah, “then I got a fastball down the middle. I knew he was throwing a fastball there and I was going to take that first fastball.”
Shawah didn’t hammer the pitch but was able to pull it to the left side and into the shortstop hole. Shortstop Moore, who had a terrific game, was in an impossible spot. He knocked down the grounder but everyone was safe as Capato raced home into the embrace of a tidal wave of Red Devils.
“There wasn’t much he could do there,” said Bridgewater-Raritan coach Max Newill. “Our third baseman was moving toward the ball, too, so we had no play at third.”
Callanan played vulture and picked up the win as Byrne did all the heavy lifting, permitting one run on seven hits, struck out seven and walked one on 107 pitches. Cozzi was arguably more dominant at times, but the walks would come back to bite him. He permitted two runs on four hits, struck out two, walked six and hit a batter.
“It was certainly a big win,” said Blackwell, the veteran Ridge mentor who steered his club to this section’s championship a year ago. “Most of the time you like the comfort level of seeing a familiar opponent. But it can be difficult to try to beat a team a fourth time around. It was a good one with a lot of big defensive plays by both teams.”
There certainly is a mutual respect between the two Skyland clubs.
“Byrne had a heck of a game,” said Cozzi.
Byrne, for his part, was impressed by his opponents. “We have known these guys for a long time,” he said. “We’ve played against each other since we were 8 years old. You know when it’s a big game Bridgewater is going to show up.”
Bridgewater’s shortstop Moore and second baseman Devin Goldberg had a memorable game. Moore, along with his double play to end the fourth, also had a pretty 6-U-3 double play to end the third. Goldberg ranged far into right field and made a spectacular diving catch of a looper by Somelofske with one out in the fifth. Bridgewater first baseman Matt Fattore also made a nifty backhanded stop of a hard liner by Olivo for the final out of the first inning.
Bridgewater was in business in the third inning after a leadoff single by No. 9 hitter Matt Salinger. Then leadoff batter Evan Goldberg singled to left. Salinger tried to go first-to-third on the hit but was gunned down by left fielder Leitz. The promising inning then ended on a strikeout-caught-stealing double play, courtesy of catcher Busnach.
The blast of the day was a ball that never left the park. Bridgewater freshman J.R. Rosado crushed a fastball off Byrne to deep left-center field with two runners aboard and one out in the fourth. But the center fielder, Olivo, hauled the shot in, about 375 away. Byrne got out of trouble from there.
“We played really well and Jason threw the heck out of it,” said Newill. “Unfortunately we couldn’t score early when we had the opportunity. We hit the ball hard all day. I think the comeback in the seventh showed our resilience. We are young and we got better as the season went on. But Ridge is a little more seasoned team.”
Ridge also defeated Bridgewater-Raritan, 10-2 on April 18, 3-1 in the SCT semifinals on May 9, and 5-3 on May 17.