Ryan Fischer’s stuff certainly looked good in the first inning but when Jack Eichler launched a two-out solo home run over the scoreboard in left field at Rick Porcello Field, one had to wonder what it would take to contain Seton Hall Prep.
“I knew I couldn’t let up anymore runs,” said Fischer, a senior righty bound for NJIT. “They’re a very good hitting team.”
Fischer would do more than contain Seton Hall (13-5), No. 19 in the NJ.com Top 20. He would tame it to the tune of an economical two-hitter in which he struck out five and walked one to steer No. 20 Hunterdon Central (12-3) to a 5-1 victory at the Kelly Athletic Complex in West Orange.
That Hunterdon Central victory came fresh off a difficult 3-2 loss to No. 6 Pope John in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex semifinals on Saturday. And it was Fischer who had to stew the past two days over a two-batter outing in bottom of the seventh that accounted for Pope John’s winning run.
Fischer, embodying the grit that has carried the Hunterdon Central program to the past three NJSIAA Group 4 finals – two of which ended in a state championship – pushed Saturday aside and took out all of his frustration on the Pirates.
“This feels good after that tough outing on Saturday,” said Fischer, who issued a walk and a hit batsman to the only batters he faced in relief against Pope John. The hit batsman forced home the winning run. “I really wanted this game after that tough loss. My defense had my back today.”
Fischer actually made it fairly easy on his defense, working quickly and efficiently with his fastball and curveball. He would throw just 88 pitches in seven mostly stress-free innings.
“I’m glad to see him bounce back from the tough spot he was put in on Saturday,” said Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi. “He throws a heavy ball and was really efficient against one of the state’s top teams.”
Seton Hall Prep starter Mark Hindy, a 6-5, 205 junior lefty, looked good the first turn through the Hunterdon Central lineup, striking out three without permitting a run in two innings. But the Red Devils struck for three runs in the top of the third to put Fischer in the driver’s seat.
David Cucci, Hunterdon Central’s leadoff batter, opened the inning with a six-pitch walk. Tyler Cassella followed with a push bunt that rolled past Hindy on the right side for a base hit. Facing No. 3 hitter Pete Ciuffreda and checking on the runners, Hindy balked, allowing the runners to move up.
Ciuffreda brought Cucci home with the tying run on a fielder’s choice bouncer to shortstop. Cleanup hitter Kenny Lombardo then ripped an 0-2 pitch through the left side to score Cassella and give Hunterdon Central its first lead, 2-1. A single through the middle by Nick Czarnecki moved Lombardo to third and he scored on Ryan Godown’s fielder’s choice grounder.
“He was sitting outside on me really well,” said Lombardo of Hindy. “He dropped a curveball on the outside corner then came back inside with a fastball.” Lombardo jumped on it.
Hunterdon Central, in fact, made the most of its five hits and an uncustomary eight walks issued by four Seton Hall pitchers.
“The walks aren’t something we are used to,” said Seton Hall Prep coach Mike Sheppard, Jr.
Hindy, who threw 89 pitches in 3.2 innings, issued walks to the first two batters of the fourth inning, Hunterdon Central’s Nos. 8 and 9 hitters Steven Roth and Brandon Padre. But the inning appeared to be saved when Pirates’ shortstop Justin Cassella turned a hot shot by Cucci into a 6-4-3 double play.
But Hunterdon Central’s Cassella, in this case Tyler, bounced a single through the middle to score Roth from third and boost the lead to 4-1.
Hunterdon Central tacked on an unearned run in the seventh to extend the lead to 5-1 and provide Fischer with an ounce more of comfort. Ciuffreda (1-for-2, RBI, run) drew his second walk leading off the inning. He stole second and took third when the throw to second got away. Lombardo (1-1, RBI, run, 2 walks) delivered Ciuffreda with a deep-enough fly ball to center field.
Fischer stranded two runners in the third when he got Eichler to bounce into a 5-4 fielder’s choice then permitted just one base runner the rest of the way. Lucas Zyska, who singled with two outs in the fifth, was the only Pirate to reach base of the final 14 batters Fischer faced.
The 6-2, 220-pound Fischer is a hard thrower, clocked as high as 88, who has had control issue in the past. Fischer, however, has fine-tuned that aspect of his game this season, the Pope John effort aside.
“I used to give up two or three walks in a couple innings,” said Fischer. “I knew I was good when I got it down to 1 or 2 in five innings. Allowing just one walk in seven innings is probably what I’m most happy about today.”
The victory represents an NJSIAA power points bonanza for Hunterdon Central. On Thursday, the Red Devils were 10-2 and, with three games remaining to meet the 15-game qualification maximum, were sitting as the No. 6 seed. But the Red Devils defeated No. 18 Hillsborough (13-2) on Thursday, lost to No. 6 Pope John (16-2) on Saturday and defeated No. 19 Seton Hall Prep (13-5) on Monday.
It’s possible winning two-of-three in that gauntlet will give Hunterdon Central the No. 2 seed or, perhaps, even the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey, Group 4.
“I said before Thursday if we take two-of-three in this stretch against these three big teams we’ll be ready for the state tournament,” said Cuozzi. Whatever the seed, Hunterdon Central certainly looks the part of the poised state tournament veteran.
NOTES: This was the first-ever meeting between Seton Hall Prep and Hunterdon Central and it’s a credit to two programs that seek out difficult competition. “You want to play good teams and players,” said Sheppard, Jr. “We certainly have a lot of respect for Hunterdon Central. They have serious players and lot of them play at Diamond Nation. I don’t really know their coach but I hear a lot of good things about Kevin.”
… Seton Hall plays 2018 Group 4 finalist Westfield on Tuesday and has Christian Brothers Academy (11-4) ahead on May 16. … Hunterdon Central jumps back into the cooker on Wednesday when it plays host to perennial Burlington County power Rancocas Valley (8-6). The Red Devils then play host to No. 8 Gloucester Catholic (11-3), the defending Non-Public B champion, on May 17.