Randolph’s Patrick Rafferty went 2-for-4 in a 5-4 loss to Montville on Wednesday.
High school baseball doesn’t bother to patiently await spring in the northeast, it simply starts without it.
When you play ball in Randolph – in the hills of Morris County – spring seems to flip you the bird, as the saying goes. Although, no one has heard much from the birds in April “up in the hills.”
But the brand of baseball put forth on a “seasonably” cold Wednesday afternoon by Montville and Randolph would fit nicely into any season.
It took a Hunter Force home run in the top of the eighth inning and a tightrope walk by the Montville bullpen in the bottom of the frame before the Mustangs checked off victory No. 10 and a wildly entertaining 5-4 victory over the host Rams, one of the longest running success stories in Morris.
Junior righty Ian Kaiser did his part on the mound for the Mustangs, pitching five scoreless innings while limiting Randolph to two hits. He struck out 10 and walked five, but the walks and a total of eight three-ball counts elevated Kaiser’s pitch count to 98 and forced him from the game earlier than he’d had liked.
“Too many walks,” said Kaiser. “I was over-throwing at times. I think I was getting ahead of myself in my windup.”
Randolph, with a first round game in the Morris County Tournament against Morris Catholic set for Friday, went to what coach Mark Rizzi called “Johnny Allstaff.” Randoph would use five pitchers that would limit Montville to five runs on five hits over the eight innings, striking out eight, walking eight and hitting two batters.
All of that traffic on the basepaths for each team made for great theater.
As a baseball reporter, you write a lead in your head as the reality of a game unfolds. But more than a few of those poetic thoughts went into a mental trash heap as the two teams traded blows over the final three innings. A beautiful headline with Randolph’s Rocco Albano’s name in it went by the wayside, for example.
Stepping to the fore with the game on the line in the eighth inning was the Hunter half of the Force twins and reliever Christian Zurawlow, who came in to nail down the final out. Force, who had moved to right field when starting right fielder Zurawlow got the call from first-year coach Jason DeVirgilio, made a sliding catch on a sinking liner off the bat of A.J. Terry to end the thriller.
Randolph (4-6) had struck for four runs in the bottom of the sixth to erase a 2-0 Montville lead that was built on single runs in the first two innings. The big blow in the sixth was delivered by Albano, Randolph’s No. 6 hitter.
Randolph’s Jonah Tullman led off the bottom of the sixth and reached on an infield error. Tullman then took second on a wild pitch and stopped at third base on Patrick Rafferty’s single through the left side. Rafferty kept right on running to second as left fielder Logan Force fired home to keep Tullman at third. Up stepped would-be hero Albano and the sophomore third baseman rocked a shot over the right field fence for a sudden 3-2 Randolph lead. Albano had doubled to right in his previous at bat.
“You want your guys to battle and that’s what they did,” said Randolph coach Mark Rizzi. “Rocco is just a sophomore, so for him to come through in that spot is pretty special. We know Kaiser and we had great at bats to get him out of there after five innings.” Kaiser also shut out Randolph over five innings in Montville’s 1-0 victory on opening day in Montville.
Albano’s home run electrified the Randolph bench and that stream of energy poured out again when Brendan Laqui followed with a double down the left field line. Laqui would score on Montville’s second error of the inning to boost the lead to 4-2. It stayed right there as Montville (10-2) came to the plate for its last at bat in the seventh.
Apparently this one was meant for extra innings because Randolph issued three walks, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch to permit two Montville runs to score and tie the game at 4-4. Brian Lovaglio absorbed the hit by pitch to force home Ryan Wehrle with Montville’s first run of the seventh. Kaiser, who drew a two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch, later reached third on the hit by pitch and scored the tying run on a wild pitch.
As the game flipped to the eighth inning, all you could see of the Randolph mothers in the stands were their eyes, they were so bundled against the elements. To add insult to the discomfort inflicted by the cold, snow flurries began to fall.
Hunter Force stepped to the plate with one out in the top of the eighth and took a fastball for strike one. “I took that fastball down the middle and my eyes kinda lit up,” said Force. “Then I got a fastball on the outer half and let it get deep.” Force, who went 3-for-3 with a double and a home run in a 12-5 victory over Hasbrouck Heights the day before, unleashed again, attacking Randolph’s short porch in right field for a solo home run and a 5-4 Mustangs lead.
But anyone frozen to the bone and with dreams of a warm home dancing in their head, had to know this one wasn’t quite over because the Rams don’t go quietly, if at all.
Laqui, already 2-for-3, led off the bottom of the eighth against reliever Lorenzo Assante and worked a lengthy at bat that ended with a very important walk. Matia Clemente then dropped down a perfect sac bunt that forced Assante to make a terrific play just to get him by a step at first. Assante then committed one of those mortal bases sins when he hit the No. 9 hitter, J.J. Tamres, with a pitch. Assante, to his credit, then got out No. 2 on a hard liner to right field by Jason Roskam.
That’s when DeVirgilio called on Zurawlow to get the last out.
That brought Terry to the plate, who had reached base three times. And the outstanding Randolph shortstop, very nearly made it four. Terry jumped on Zurawlow’s first offering and lined it hard to right field. Both runners were on the move, with Laqui already around third with the potential tying run. But Hunter Force, who had jabbed Randolph in the top of the inning, raced in, slid to his knees and snared the liner to end the game.
“DeVirgilio, who came to Montville via Madison, has been tickled not only by his team’s performance but by its chemistry.
“I’ve been coaching in New Jersey for 20 years,” said DeVirgilio, certainly no stranger in the North Jersey coaching community. “This is the only team I’ve coached in which every single player loves every one of his teammates. And that is kudos to their parents.”
Montville was tabbed the No. 2 seed in the MCT and drew a bye in the first round, enabling DeVirgilio to send his ace, Kaiser, to the mound against Randolph.
Montville scored an unearned run in the top of the first when Kaiser drew a one-out walk, moved to second on a fielder’s choice and his courtesy runner, Derek Pasquale, scored on an infield error. Ryan Nieskens leadoff walk ignited the mini-rally in the second for Montville. He stole second and scored on Wehrle’s single through the right side.
Kaiser stranded six baserunners in his five innings of work. The Binghamton-bound two-way player – he also plays center field – has 48 strikeouts and 17 walks in 24 innings. He has permitted just four earned runs and boasts a 1.17 ERA. He entered Wednesday with a .467 batting average on the season.
Kaiser plays his summer ball with the Diamond Jacks Super 17U team. Hunter and Logan Force are sophomores who play for the Diamond Jacks Super 16U squad.