Ridgewood’s veteran mentor Kurt Hommen called his team’s 4-0 victory over Old Bridge in the NJSIAA Group 4 championship game, “a normal baseball game.”
Forgive Hommen for expressing what seemed to be a bit of relief after coaching through back-to-back baseball donnybrooks just to reach the school’s second group final on Saturday at Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton.
Ridgewood won the 2019 Group 4 championship in its only other appearance in the final. Old Bridge was playing in its first-ever group final.
But first, Ridgewood (24-7) had to survive two wild baseball roller coaster rides, a 12-11 victory over Bloomfield in the North Jersey, Section 1 final, and a 14-13 win over Bayonne in the Group 4 semifinal. It had surrendered 24 runs in back-to-back games and somehow advanced.
Lefthander Vincent Luther gave Hommen and his Ridewood teammates the perfect prescription for baseball mayhem, a workmanlike four-hit shutout that stifled a gritty Old Bridge lineup that seemed to get more dangerous as the season progressed.
Luther came within a half step of a complete game when Old Bridge’s Adam Scire beat the return throw to first base to avoid a game-ending double play in the seventh. Luther’s 1-2 pitch to Scire was his last under the 110-pitch limit. He, in fact, reached 113 pitches finishing the Scire at bat.
Righthander Brendan Chanley came in to get the only batter he faced to pop out to first baseman Jay Wittmaack and set off a wild celebration.
Luther struck out seven and walked one and extricated himself from a jam in the sixth when the Maroons were protecting a tenuous 3-0 lead.
“I started the game with six straight balls,” said Luther, so I went to the slider to get things going. Then I went back to the fastball.”
Luther walked leadoff batter John Smith on four pitches to start the top of the first inning ominously. He then started No. 2 hitter Thomas Papeo with two straight balls, but came back to strike him out on a 3-2 pitch. Luther got through the first clean and did not allow a runner past first base until the sixth. He, in fact, retired 11 straight Old Bridge batters from the first out of the second inning to the second out of the fifth.
Old Bridge starter Justin Hascup surrendered a leadoff double to J.T. Luther in the first and a single by Jack Foerch, but defused the rally when third baseman Smith turned Lucas Barker’s line drive into a 5-unassisted double play. The righty Hascup looked terrific in the second when he struck out the Ridgewood side around Jack Nesland’s two-out single.
But the Ridgewood bats, which averaged a tick under nine runs per-game this season despite the rugged Bergen County schedule, sprung back to life in the third inning.
Bobby Kuenzler, the No. 9 hitter, opened the inning with a single to left field. Hascup got the dangerous J.T. Luther (2-for-4, RBI), who would finish the game and season with a stunning 48 hits on the season, to fly out to center field. But Barker would not comply.
The Ridgewood third baseman crushed a 0-1 hanging breaking ball from Hascup and deposited it beyond the left field fence for a two-run home run and a 2-0 lead.
“He threw me a fastball on the first pitch,” said Barker. “Then he came back with something off-speed, but he missed his spot. I was looking fastball and not trying to do too much.” Barker adjusted well to the breaking ball and the Maroons had jumped in front.
Hascup struck out the first two batters of the fourth inning, but put himself in danger once again by walking No. 8 hitter Wittmaack and No. 9 hitter Kuenzler to flip the lineup to J.T. Luther. The Ridgewood second baseman made his 50th hit a big one, singling to right field to score Wittmaack from second to extend the lead to 3-0.
Frank Papeo had singled leading off the second for Old Bridge (21-9), but that’s when Luther began his run of retiring 11 straight batters. That run was stopped by Scire, who singled through the right side with two outs in the fifth.
But Luther’s true trouble occurred in the sixth when Old Bridge’s top of the order came to bat.
Smith started things by reaching on an infield error, always a harbinger of bad things in baseball. Thomas Papeo followed with a single to right as Smith stopped at second. Papeo had a terrific seven-pitch at bat before dropping his single into right field. Up stepped dangerous No. 3 hitter, the lefty-hitting Kyle McSorley.
McSorley hit six home runs on the season to go with 27 RBI and strikes an imposing, confident presence at the plate. McSorley had a great at bat, too, against Luther, but he missed on the eight pitch, a 3-2 slider, for strike three and the first out. Luther then got Frank Papeo to bounce into a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play, sucking the air out of the visiting side of the field.
Ridgewood tacked on a run in the bottom of the sixth to lift the lead to 4-0. Alex D’Angelo led off and reached second on a two-base throwing error. Nesland singled him to third and the two pulled off a double steal with Kuehzler at the plate. The throw to second was late, as was the throw back to the plate as D’Angelo slid in safely.
Luther issued his first and only walk, to Evan Smith, with one in the seventh, then nearly ended the game the same way he ended the sixth, but Scire beat the throw to first. Luther left to a standing ovation – from the players in the Ridgewood dugout.
“I was still feeling strong,” said Luther. “I could have finished, but that’s the rule.” Luther joins the biggest club in the world that includes pitchers who never claim to be tired.
Ridgewood would not have had a chance to play that “normal baseball game” that Hommen so enjoyed in the Group 4 final, if not for grinding through those two incredible prior state tournament games.
“We were productive offensively all season,” said Hommen, who is on the precipice of career victory No. 600 (595-278-1). “Our infielders were terrific.” His first three hitters in the lineup, second baseman Luther (48 hits), third baseman Barker (35 hits, 20 RBI) and shortstop Foerch (43 hits, 35 RBI) gave opponents fits. Foerch, in fact, picked up career hit No. 100 in the game.
The team’s second group title is not a bad finish for a team that started the season at 1-3.
“Each week we seemed to pick it up a bit and we came along and improved,” said Hommen. “They came together as a team. They had good chemistry.”
Barker and J.T. Luther and Foerch were in the middle of much of it, but there were few if any breaks coming their opponents’ way from the rest of the Maroons lineup.
“We bonded well early and battled back in games so many times,” said Barker. “We have so much chemistry.”
Once Wittmaack secured the foul pop near the Ridgewood bleachers, and made a mad dash to the dog pile near the mound, Ridgewood had its second state championship in five seasons.
All seemed normal.