Hopewell Valley first baseman Jayden Shin keeps Hamilton West’s Jack Boufford close.
State tournament baseball is not for the meek, shy or those preferring to wait for good things to happen. It’s for the strong of heart and the naturally fearless.
That made Hamilton West third baseman Ryan Marino the perfect person to come to the plate with a runner on second base and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning of the NSJIAA Central Jersey, Group 3 quarterfinal at ‘The Nest’ in Hamilton.
“Ryan is our most aggressive hitter,” said Mike Moceri, Hamilton West’s third-year coach who certainly saw his share of big spots in terrific careers as Steinert and Kean University. “You definitely want him up in that spot.”
Mike Nielsen had just shot a 3-2 pitch into the right-center field gap for a double after an enormously clutch 10-pitch at bat. But both teams had let opportunity after opportunity slip away to that point. This made Marino’s aggression both surprising and refreshing.
Marino jumped on a first-pitch fastball from sophomore reliever Lucas Henderson and drove it over the head of hastily retreating left fielder Jayson Shin. Off the bat it looked like it may clear the wall for a home run, but the double landed untouched at the base of the wall, sufficient enough to ignite a wild celebration in the middle of the diamond.
Hamilton West had defeated Colonial Valley Conference rival Hopewell Valley, 2-1, to survived and advanced in the most unforgiving of all tournaments. It also avenged a 7-0 loss to the Bulldogs on April 28.
“It was a fastball and it was right there,” said Marino, as in, right where he likes it. “Nielsen’s at bat started it. It was amazing. I just fed off that. We battled adversity all day and overcame it.”
The bottom of the eighth inning began with a sparkling catch in right field by Lengle. The lefty-hitting Rodriguez lofted a shot down the line that looked like it had a chance to clear the short porch and end the game right there. But Lengle raced over and made a sliding grab near the line for the first out.
Nielson stepped in and quickly found himself in an 0-2 hole.
“I was going to battle,” said Nielsen. “I take pride in not striking out.” He would foul off four pitches on the way to getting the count full. At least one of those called balls could have gone the other way. Such was the nature of this intensely close game.
Then Nielsen finally got a pitch he could handle.
“I had a feeling I’d get a fastball because he didn’t want to walk me,” said Nielsen. “I was thinking middle of the field and hit it to the right-center gap.”
The adversity Marino referred to came in two forms. Hopewell Valley starter Chris Tobia was so terrific that he held third-seeded Hamilton West (16-5) hitless into the sixth inning. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were lashing out 11 hits and creating traffic jams on the bases. Fortunately for the Hornets, their two-headed state tournament aces, lefty Nate Rodriguez and righty Dylan Parsons were gritty and stubborn when needed most and stranded nine runners between them.
Hamilton West also short-circuited the typically aggressive Hopewell Valley running game, catching three runners stealing and picking off a runner at second base. Hopewell Valley had runners on first and second and no outs in the third, fourth and sixth innings but could manage just a single run.
“We left too many guys on,” said Hopewell Valley coach Ken Harrison, who ably guided the Bulldogs to the Colonial Valley Conference Tournament championship.
Hamilton West had taken a 1-0 lead in the second inning without the benefit of a hit. Marino, patient this time, and Tyler Williams drew back-to-back walks to start things. Jack Boufford dropped down a successful sacrifice to move the runners into scoring position. Ryan Liguori, the No. 8 hitter, got Marino home with a 4-3 bouncer in the middle of the diamond. Tobia struck out the next batter to end the threat.
Sixth-seeded Hopewell Valley (12-10) got the score even in the third after Rodriguez walked No. 9 hitter Henderson leading off and surrendered a single to leadoff batter Dylan Eng. But with Jake Lengle batting, Henderson tried to steal third and was gunned down by catcher Liguori.
Lengle then doubled to left-center field to score Eng and tie the game at 1-1. Paul Myers, the No. 3 hitter followed with a single to center field but Lengle was nailed at the plate on a pretty relay to end the inning.
For a game with just three runs, there were an awful lot of significant innings.
Cole Garrow doubled leading off the Hopewell Valley fourth before Michael Boyer drew a walk to set up the Bulldogs for a rally. Moceri pulled Rodriguez at that point for Parsons, who proceeded to get his team out of the jam. Jayson Shin dropped down a serviceable bunt, but Parsons pounced on it and got the force out at third. Chris DelVecchio singled to right, but Rodriguez, who had just arrived in the outfield, made a hurried throw to the cutoff man to keep Boyer at third.
Parsons than stared down the bases-loaded jam by striking out the next two batters to end the threat. Parsons picked Lengle off of second in the fifth to close the faucet on a possible rally. Then, after Garrow and Boyer started the sixth for Hopewell Valley with back-to-back singles, Parsons got a fly out to left and two strikeouts to extricate himself from trouble once again.
Parsons wasn’t done. Lengle reached on a pretty bunt single with two outs in the top of the seventh and Myers walked. But Parson got Garrow to hit a sky-high pop up to shortstop that Noel Olavarria put away for the third out.
Parsons’ 1-2-3 top of the eighth was the only such inning by either pitching staff all day. He would shut out Hopewell Valley on five hits over the final five innings, striking out six and walking one in a yeoman 78-pitch effort.
“My slider was working well,” said Parsons, who drops down with a bit of sidearm, making that slider even more treacherous to navigate. “You have to work backward with a good hitting lineup like that.”
Tobia was terrific, permitting one run on two hits over 6.1 innings, striking out four and walking four in a tidy 87 pitches. But, after allowing a one-out single to Boufford and walking Liguori in the seventh, Harrison came and got him.
“Chris was battling all game,” said Harrison. “It was a great outing.” It was a hot afternoon with the temperature passing 90 degrees, challenging the pitchers further.
In came Henderson and he walked pinch-hitter Pat McAuliffe to load the bases. That brought up the top of the order and Hamilton would have two shots to walk it off.
Danilo Perdomo worked the count full knowing even a walk would end the game. Instead, Perdomo checked his swing on the 3-2 offering and appeared to be hit in the arm by the pitch. The umpires convened and ruled Perdomo had swung and struck out. After the ensuing debate subsided, Henderson got Olavarria to pop out to catcher Boyer and, incredibly, get out of the jam and send the game to extra innings.
A still shot taken by a member of the media did show the ball hitting Perdomo’s bat. The ball bounced straight to Henderson and would have resulted in an easy force out at the plate. And, you could argue, Hopewell Valley would have had a shot at a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play. It was an incredibly difficult call for a home plate umpire.
This one came down to gutsy, gritty pitching and, finally, two big clutch hits in the bottom of the eighth.
“Tobia was phenomenal,” said Moceri. “He kept us off balance all day. I give our guys credit for continuing to battle in every at bat. We’ve been practicing that all year. Our guys, up and down the lineup, were grinding in their at bats. Nielsen’s at bat showed how important that is.”
Rodriguez permitted one run on six hits over three-plus innings, struck out two and walked three.
Hamilton West draws No. 7 seed Northern Burlington in the sectional semifinals back at the ‘The Nest’ on Tuesday. Top-seeded Colts Neck will play host to fifth-seeded Allentown in the other semifinal. The winners meet on Friday for the sectional championship. That game will be at the home of the higher seeded team.