Aidan Kozak had a three-run home run and the game-ending RBI single for Whitehouse Post 284.
By Rich Bevensee
Brad Kneller freely admitted his four-inning no-hitter wasn’t pretty, but he was thankful for an opportunistic offense which smoothed out some of those rough edges.
Kneller, a senior at North Hunterdon, did indeed pitch the first no-hitter of his career, but he also allowed six walks. His Whitehouse Post 284 teammates made those free passes meaningless by piling up 11 runs on five hits and 12 walks.
Top-seeded Whitehouse translated that production into an 11-1 victory over the eighth-seeded Morris County Cubs in the Diamond Nation Fall League quarterfinals on Tuesday in Flemington.
“I’m pleased with the no-hitter but I gotta’ be better with the six walks. That can come back and haunt me if we play a good team,” Kneller said. “I have to be better but the offense made me feel great about myself. I didn’t have to stress about anything.”
Whitehouse, 12-1 in league play, will face the fifth-seeded Bucks County Generals in one semifinal game on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The other semifinal will feature third-seeded Hustle Baseball 17U against surprising seventh-seeded Montgomery Superior. The semifinal winners will play at 8 p.m. for the title. Coincidentally, Kneller’s North Hunterdon teammate, Eddie Appollina was busy on Field 3 pitching a one-hitter in Montgomery’s victory over Morris County Cubs 16U.
Whitehouse rallied for five runs in the bottom of the second inning, four runs in the third, and two more in the fourth. Aidan Kozak, a Middlesex senior, capped the final rally and ended the game with a walk-off, RBI single to bring about the 10-run mercy rule.
“We have a lot of fun and when things get going, the energy builds up, and then we start feeding off it,” Kozak said. “Sometimes it takes a while to get going, but once we do, it’s hard to stop us.”
The big offensive blast for Post 284 came off Kozak’s bat in the second inning.
Joe Nolan (RBI single) and Andrew Nguyen (sacrifice fly) had given Whitehouse a 2-1 lead before Kozak drilled a long fly which reached the center field wall. The speedy Kozak had already crossed second base when the ball was retrieved, and he buzzed home with an inside-the-park, three-run home run to give Whitehouse a 5-1 lead.
It was Kozak’s first homer of any kind since last season, when he went over the Diamond Nation fence for a traditional round-tripper.
“I wasn’t really watching it so I thought it was going to be a triple off the bat,” Kozak said. “I knew he wasn’t going to catch it because I smoked it. I was watching my coach the whole time and I didn’t slow up. He hesitated to send me, then he sent me once he saw the throw in. I never looked once, I was thinking three all the way.”
Handed a four-run cushion, Kneller went back to work. He dabbled in danger but always wiggled out of it, thanks mostly to seven strikeouts. Despite the six walks he yielded, he stranded five baserunners, four of them in scoring position.
In the third inning, Kaleb McGann had a fielder’s choice RBI, Jimmy Lundari scored on a wild pitch, and Ryan Barr lined a two-run single into left for a 9-1 Whitehouse lead.
Post 284 loaded the bases in the fourth before Nguyen forced in a run with a walk. Kozak followed with the game-ending single through the middle.
After the game, the 6-3, 185-pound Kneller was wearing a face of cautious optimism, wanting to celebrate a no-hitter but unable to because he knows he needs to clean up his location.
“After the first walk of the game it got in my head a little bit,” Kneller said. “I have to focus more on my control and be more consistent. I battled, which helps a lot, but I gotta help the team out more. I need to stop opening up and focus on pounding the strike zone.”
Sensing Kneller was his own harshest critic, Whitehouse coach Steve Farsiou said there were some positive aspects to what his lanky right-hander accomplished.
“Brad has more ability than anyone. He’s got the size, he’s got the arm and he does work hard,” Farsiou said. “He’s the epitome of me saying, you need to believe more in yourself. Once he does, and it clicks for him, he’s going to be lights out. Whatever college gets him, they’re going to be getting a very good player.”
The Cubs were the first to reach the scoreboard when leadoff man Zach Broderson began the game with a walk, advanced to second on an outfield error, reached third on a groundout, and eventually scored on a Kneller balk.
Cubs starter Tyler Chen pitched two innings and allowed six runs on three hits and six walks with three strikeouts. He walked the first two batters of the third inning before giving way to Nathaniel Norin, who yielded three runs on one hit and two walks in one inning of work. Broderson pitched the fourth inning and allowed two runs on one hit and four walks.