Logan Mason dives across home plate with the tying run ahead of Livingston catcher Myles Seid.
This was not the joy ride Hunterdon Central had experienced in its first four NJSIAA tournament games the past two weeks. In fact, it was downright uncomfortable, stressful and, they may admit some day, frightening.
But three straight doubles with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning by Hunterdon Central’s Logan Mason, Chase Fischer and Brandon Padre erased all the doubt that tends to creep in what should be renamed the NJSIAA’s annual single-elimination tension convention.
The Red Devils, No. 5 in the NJ.com Top 20, had survived a remarkable outing by Livingston righthander Jon DePalma, prevailing, 2-1, in a Group 4 semifinal at Hunterdon Central in Flemington. Hunterdon Central advances to its third Group 4 final in six seasons to face Howell at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Veterans Park in Hamilton.
The Red Devils (25-4) are 21-1 since opening the season at 4-3 and have outscored their five state tournament opponents 41-3. They seek the Flemington school’s sixth group championship, having won their fourth and fifth Group 4 titles in 2016 and ‘18.
Livingston (21-9), fresh off its first sectional crown since 1980 and owners of two Group 4 crowns (1976 and ‘80), did not flinch in the spotlight. In fact, the Lancers, who had won 10 straight games coming in, very nearly shot a hole in the top quarter of the NJ.com Top 20. Credit DePalma for that. The junior righty limited Hunterdon Central to two runs on five hits, struck out three and walked one in an at times dominating and always efficient 70-pitch effort.
“My off-speed stuff was really good today,” said DePalma. “I used a lot of off-speed pitches when I was behind in the count. The scout we had on them was that they could hit.”
So taming Hunterdon Central became DePalma’s responsibility and his performance was so good against one of the top lineups in New Jersey, he shares top billing here with the gritty efforts of a trio of Hunterdon Central pitchers whose stubbornness kept the Red Devils in position for some late game lightning.
Livingston had worked and prodded Hunterdon Central starter James Scott and grinded each at bat until the lefthander had amassed 99 pitches through 4.2 innings. Scott never got out of the fifth inning, throwing 30 pitches to six Livingston batters and surrendering the game’s first run. And here’s the thing, the gritty Scott permitted just the one run on two hits, despite walking six and hitting a batter.
Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi pulled Scott after he plunked Aaron Hauser with a pitch to force home his brother, Ben Hauser, from third for a 1-0 Livingston lead. Scott had also walked the previous two batters, Daniel Levine and L.J. Cocuzza.
Jared Cassella came in and retired the only batter he faced on a fly out to right field, squelching any further threat. But when DePalma retired the Red Devils in order in the bottom of the fifth, the hometown faithful grew unusually quiet.
Leave it to Logan Mason to not only restore order in the Livingston half of the sixth inning – retiring the side in order with two strikeouts – but setting the table for the one-out rally in the bottom of the inning.
Mason, the Red Devils’ No. 3 hitter, ripped an 0-1 pitch into left-center that bounced awkwardly to the right of charging left fielder Julian Fusari. Mason, ever aggressive, took the opportunity to turn a single into two bases, barely beating Fusari’s throw to second.
“(First base) coach (John) Augusta was yelling ‘Stop. Stop. Stop.’” said Mason. “But I knew I could make it.”
What Mason did next was even more impressive.
Fischer, the cleanup hitter, stepped in and battled DePalma to a 3-2 count before launching a high and deep shot to centerfield, where Ben Hauser looked like he was about to make one heck of a running catch near the wall. But Hauser never quite got to the ball and it fell safely. Mason, tagging at second, saw opportunity.
“I saw his numbers and the ball fall and knew it was time to book it,” said Mason. “I expected the stop sign from coach Cuozzi at third, but didnt get one and kept running.” Mason dove headlong across the plate, just ahead of the relay throw with the tying run. “I knew I was under the tag.”
Brandon Padre, who had been robbed of an extra-base hit in Hunterdon Central’s sectional final victory over Woodbridge, stepped to the fore, too. “I was looking for a curveball and got it,” said Padre. “He was spotting it well all game as well as his changeup. He attacked all game and had us chasing.”
Padre unloaded a high fly to deep left that carried both toward the wall and the foul line as Fusari gave chase. “I just got out of the box and was thinking, ‘it’s a tie game and were going ahead.’” Fusari leaped before the wall but came empty as Fischer’s pinch-runner, Logan Escamilla, raced home standing up with the go-ahead run.
“Our mentality that inning was to work the count in every at bat, like coach Cuozzi said,” Padre said. “We executed really well there.”
But Livingston still had one more shot but their closer, Mason, was operating in mostly uncharted territory, his second inning of relief.
“Our strategy with Mase’ all year was to just give him one inning and keep him super fresh, so we can use him in the states for more than an inning,” said Cuozzi.
Mason, still covered with dirt from his slide at home plate, was basically a wild dog taken off a leash at that point. He got the speedy Scott Schroeder, who had triggered Livingston’s rally in the fifth with an infield single, to bounce out to shortstop in a bang-bang play at first. Leadoff hitter Ben Hauser reached on an infield single to the right side. But Mason closed it out on a pop up to short and a strikeout to end it.
“I did work more than one inning a couple times this season, but never in max effort like today,” said Mason. “I love being in that spot. I knew I was coming in and I knew I was going to get it done.”
For quite awhile, it appeared DePalma was going to deliver Livingston to its third state final.
“No one is playing ball in college. We were all playing for today,” said DePalma. “We’ve had so much fun, we didn’t want it to end.”
For Hunterdon Central, the ride continues.
NOTES: Scott got out of a two-on, out jam in the first inning, stranded a runner at third in the second, kept Ben Hauser on second in the third inning after he walked and stole second with one out, and got out of trouble again in the fourth via a 4-6-3 double play. … Ben Hauser walked, singled and scored a run from the leadoff spot for Livingston.
… Red Devils’ sophomore third baseman Mike Contiliano made a terrific play in the third on a high chopper by Cocuzza. He leaped, pulled the ball down and fired to first to just get Cocuzza. … DePalma got out of a jam in the third. Chase Moskowitz singled with one out and Contiliano reached on a throwing error with two outs. Both runners moved up on a wild pitch before Mason walked to load the bases. But DePalma ended a six-pitch battle with the dangerous Fischer by getting him looking at a 3-2 curveball on the outside corner. … DePalma retired eight straight before Mason’s double in the sixth turned the tide.
… Aaron Hauser’s hit-by-pitch RBI drew an argument by Cuozzi and Padre, as it appeared he leaned into the 1-2 curveball. But Hauser was simply doing what any batter would do given the opportunity, take one for the team.
… Schroeder makes this particular writer feel his age. Schroeder’s dad, also Scott, is not only the former Livingston coach, but a catcher and All-State selection in his day as a Lancer. Yes, this writer covered Papa Schroeder’s scholastic days as well.
Thank you, Marc Padre, for the great photos above!