Hustle survives tiebreaker duel to advance to Fall League semis

By Bob Behre | November 2, 2023

Hustle Baseball’s Ryan Spaar looks at ball three on his way to a walk-off walk in Fall League quarters.

This gem of a Fall League playoff game had all the little ingredients that make baseball fun. Well, maybe not the low 40s temperatures that had parents wrapped in blankets for eight innings.

But we digress.

Back to a game that delivered big hits in key spots, stunning defensive plays – along with a couple sloppy ones – a handful of huge individual performances, nail-biting tension in the late innings and even a walk-off to cap the chilly evening.

Hustle Baseball Academy’s starting pitcher Ryan Spaar delivered six gritty, workmanlike innings then found himself in position to win the quarterfinal game for his team in the bottom of the eighth inning. He did so in what he astutely called “anticlimactic” fashion. Spaar drew a bases-loaded walk on a 3-2 pitch to force home teammate Peter Peluso with the winning run and edge NJ Jays 18U, 4-3.

Hustle (14-2) advances to Diamond Nation’s High School Fall League semifinals, where it will face Allentown Legion (8-1) tonight at 6 p.m. on Field 7. Whitehouse Post 284 (16-0) will play Hillsborough Cardinal (11-5) in the other 6 p.m. semifinal on Field 1. The winners meet at 8 p.m. on Field 1 for the championship.

And that will put a wrap on a Diamond Nation 2023 season borne in mid-March.

Spaar battled with runners on base in all but one of his six innings but limited the Jays to two runs, one of which was earned, on seven hits. He struck out four and walked none.

“I’ve been a two or three innings guy all fall, so I didn’t expect to be in the game that long,” said Spaar, a senior at Millburn. But Spaar had only thrown 51 pitches through five innings, so Hustle coach Matt Rago extended the righthander’s leash. “I felt pretty good and had a good mix of my four-seamer, two-seamer, curveball and slider.”

“Ryan did a good job of staying focused with runners on base,” said Rago, “ and he wasn’t walking guys.”

Spaar surrendered his second run on a two-out RBI double to left-center field by the Jays’ Casey Delaney in the sixth. That drew the Jays within 3-2 and ratcheted up the intensity in the playoff game. Delaney was a thorn in Hustle Baseball’s side all night, going 3-for-3 with a double and pair of RBI.

Peter Peluso scores the winning run as Hustle Baseball advances to Fall League semifinals.

Spaar was replaced by Chase Tarnoff in the seventh, but Tarnoff got off to an ominous start when he walked leadoff batter Connor Monus. That issue was complicated when Tarnoff uncorked two wild pitches to send Monus to third still with no outs. Tarnoff, a catcher by trade, hadn’t gotten much mound time this fall. But he buckled down and induced a fly out to left field and struck out the next batter as Monus stayed at third.

The Jays starting pitcher, Greg Kasperek – Delaney’s teammate at Hunterdon Central – then hit a slow bouncer down the first base side. Tarnoff charged in but couldn’t get a handle on it as Kasperek reached first and Monus crossed the plate with the tying run.

Tarnoff struck out the next batter to end the inning before Kasperek, who had stifled the potent Hustle bats all night, got a 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh to send the game to extra innings. Of course that meant the always treacherous and entertaining California tiebreaker rule would decide which team reached the semifinals.

To rehash the rule, each team gets an at bat with the bases loaded and one out. The team scoring the greater amount of runs in the inning wins.

Tarnoff made up for the ills of the seventh inning by inducing a fly out to center that was not quite deep enough for the runner on third base, Logan Garrow, to chance tagging up. He then got an aggressive Aidan Walsh swinging at a high fastball to end the inning. Walsh had singled and reached base twice to that point.

That set up Hustle for the possible walkoff win with its No. 10 hitter, Spaar, coming to the plate. Spaar would have an excellent and patient approach.

“I was taking what he gave me and not swinging at anything out of the zone,” said Spaar, who worked the count to 3-1 before fouling off a pitch. “I fouled that one back then got a good look at the next one and it wasn’t close.”

Peluso, running for the catcher Vega, trotted in from third, touched the plate and Hustle Baseball was on to the semifinals.

The Jays struck first, scoring an unearned run off Spaar in the top of the first. Leadoff batter Chris Kuhns (2-for-4) singled to right field and moved to second on an infield error. Hustle then turned a nifty 4-6-3 double play as Kuhn moved to third base. That brought the dangerous cleanup hitter, Delaney, to the plate and the Hunterdon Central junior ripped a shot into left field to score Kuhns for a 1-0 lead.

Hustle’s right fielder, Peluso, saved Spaar another run in the inning when he chased down a shot along the right field line by Matt Levanda for the third out. Hustle left fielder Logan Force saved a run, too, with two outs in the fourth when he made a sliding catch on a shot by Garrow that looked like a sure single, stranding Delany on second. Delaney, there he is again, led off the inning with a single and stole second.

Hustle gained early control of the game with a three-run rally in the bottom of the first, helped greatly by two errors in right field.

Aidan Napolitano ignited the rally with a leadoff triple over the center fielder’s head. “Aidan has been there all fall as a table-setter for us,” said Rago. “He’s nursing a little hammy issue but he’s grinding through it.”

Jays’ Greg Kasperek delivers a pitch to Hustle’s Hunter Force during third inning of Fall quarterfinals.

Andrew Hladik then lofted a fly ball to fairly deep right field. The right fielder got there but couldn’t haul it in as Napolitano scored the tying run and Hladik raced all the way to third base. Hunter Force, Logan’s twin, then brought Hladik home with a fielder’s choice bouncer to shortstop. Brayden Peoples reached second when his fly ball to right was misplayed. He then took third on a wild pitch and scored on Logan Force’s sac fly to right.

The 3-1 lead held steady as Spaar and Kasperek kept the opposing hitters at bay. Kasperek was the more efficient pitcher. He would permit three runs, just one of which was earned, on five hits over seven innings. He struck out four and walked one. In fact, the walk-off walk to Spaar was just the third walk issued in the game by the two teams.

Despite being seemingly outgunned offensively in the pre-game, the Jays outhit Hustle, 7-5, led by Delaney, Kuhns and Chase Reinhard, who singled with two outs in the sixth ahead of Delaney’s clutch double.

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