Bridgewater-Raritan’s Evan Goldberg doubled on this pitch in the fifth inning and later scored.
The loss of the 2020 season and the constant, nagging “what could have beens” that accompany that horror will linger for a long time. Bridgewater-Raritan knows. It is one of those baseball programs in New Jersey that has good reason to feel a deep level of loss, at least in a baseball sense.
“I think it may have been my best team here,” said Bridgewater-Raritan mentor Max Newill of his deep and talented 2020 club. Newill, a 1994, Delran High grad, has been at the Bridgewater reins since 2008 and was an assistant in the program dating back to 2003.
Important ties to that 2020 squad remain and a clear chemistry has emerged in the 2021 Panthers that harken back to these players’ remarkable experience in the Last Dance Tournament last July.
That chemistry, not to mention a well-rounded team-first concept on the field, has bore fruit in the form of an 8-0 start that has turned heads in the mighty Skyland Conference and beyond. Bridgewater-Raritan, a year later than expected, has arrived. Those 2020 seniors clearly were also very good at baton passing.
Lefthander Jason Cozzi and righty Tyler Sickles combined on a three-hitter and Mike Pastor’s RBI single helped trigger a two-run fourth inning that sent the Panthers to a 4-0 victory over conference rival Montgomery (4-4) on Thursday in Bridgewater and forged that immaculate 8-0 record.
Cozzi receives points for his grit, Sickles for his unabated efficiency in the strike zone and Pastor for his timeliness. And they had plenty of company in the form of important contributions.
Cozzi (3-0) limited Montgomery to two hits over four shutout innings, struck out five and walked three. But the sophomore had expended 78 pitches in that short time so turned it over to Sickles. But, first, his teammates would make sure he would get the win.
“I was getting the outside call a lot but they were definitely making me work,” said Cozzi, who would have been economical if not for a 36-pitch third inning. That inning included a 12-pitch at bat by Montgomery’s J.J. Malek that Cozzi ended with a swinging strike three. Cozzi would strand the bases loaded two batters later. “I wasn’t getting the high strikes. Three walks are too much for me. I want to limit them. I’m working to get better every game.”
Aaron Santos caused Montgomery’s first concern in the bottom of the fourth by drawing a one-out walk. Cougars starter Andrew Rubayo, a 6-5, 205-pound junior lefty, then struck out the next batter for the second out. But Matt Smoke poked a single through the right side to advance Santos into scoring position. That brought Pastor to the plate.
“My first time up he threw me three straight balls,” said Pastor, who, nonetheless, popped out in that at bat. “He’s a really good pitcher and he was keeping the ball outside on me. I had a 2-0 count this time and was sitting fastball. I got it and was a little out in front but was able to get it into left field for a single.”
The singled chased Santos home from second with the game’s first run, staking Bridgewater to a 1-0 lead. Bryce Myers followed and reached on an infield throwing error that allowed Smoke to score from second with the second run.
“I think that first run started things,” said Pastor, “and we were off and running from there.”
Sickles walked the first batter he faced in the fifth, No. 9 hitter Mark Jenkins, and had very little trouble after. First he picked off Jenkins and then got the next two batters without incident. He’d strike out the side in order in the sixth and picked up two more strikeouts in the seventh on the way to closing out the tidy save.
The Panthers would tack on important insurance runs in the fifth and sixth innings.
Evan Goldberg, Bridgewater-Raritan’s leadoff batter, doubled to deep center field to open the fifth and scored when Michael Fattore hit a grounder through the left side to boost the lead to 3-0.
Rubayo threw 91 pitches in his 5.2 innings, striking out four, walking one and hitting a batter. He permitted just one earned run. He got the first two batters in the sixth but Brad Lewandowski reached on an infield hit, stole second and scored on a throwing error.
“I wasn’t hitting my spots like I should be,” said Rubayo, whose fastball appeared to be comfortably in the mid-80s. “I need to be more consistent.”
Malek came in after the infield error and struck out the only batter he faced, looking at a fastball to end the inning.
It was yet another win for Bridgewater-Raritan as it did all the little things that add up wins.
“We’re having better at bats with two strikes and I think, today, we did a better job fighting off pitches our second time around the lineup,” said Newill. “The goal is to put balls in play and force your opponents to make plays, putting pressure on them.”
Newill was please with his two pitchers, as well.
“Jason is a young pitcher and he is competing,” said Newill. “He did a good job righting the ship in the third inning. Then Tyler came in and just threw one strike after another.”
And for the Panthers, it’s been one win after another.
NOTES: The rugged Skyland Conference ratchets up the pressure on Bridgewater-Raritan in the next six days. If weather permits on Saturday, the Panthers travel to Somerville (6-3) for a 6 p.m. game at Torpey Field. Bridgewater plays host to Watchung Hills (7-2) on Tuesday and Gill St. Bernard’s (7-2) on Wednesday before capping the difficult run with a visit to Hunterdon Central (8-0) in Flemington on Thursday. The Red Devils are ranked No. 3 in NJ.com’s statewide Top 20.
… Bridgewater won it’s pool in the Last Dance Tournament last July, defeating Somerville and Immaculata. It then lost its first elimination game in the round of 32 to Jefferson. The Last Dance was initiated in the middle of the pandemic by St. Joseph (Met.) coach Mike Murray, Jr. and designed to give the 2020 seniors a final baseball experience before heading off to college. It was a rousing success at every possible turn. The tournament played down to a single championship game, a Tournament of Champions in a sense. Current No. 1 Cranford won the whole thing.