Much has been made of Hunterdon Central’s ability to put on a fireworks show with its legitimately deep lineup.
Sophomore Mike Contiliano, for example, is the nine hitter and is batting .423 with a team-leading 22 hits. Senior Chase Moskowitz bats right in front of Contiliano, at No. 8, and is sticking it to the tune of .388 with a team-leading 17 RBI.
With bats like that, it can be difficult to look further at what makes this team tick.
Sure, you know of Kyle McCoy, the big 6-5, 180-pound lefty bound for Maryland, that is if a major league franchise doesn’t pluck him early enough in the Draft to make him forget what a Terrapin is.
Perhaps you saw Hunterdon Central’s No. 2 pitcher, junior lefty James Scott, tame a very good Ridge team last week on four hits in a victory that put the Red Devils back in the driver’s seat in the Skyland Conference Delaware Division.
If you stopped by the Red Devils diamond on Monday to take in Hunterdon Central’s battle with arch rival North Hunterdon in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament semifinals, you witnessed a pretty impressive three-man tag team hold the Lions at bay in a 6-2 decision.
Hunterdon Central (13-3), now on a nine-game winning streak since falling to 4-3 on April 19, will oppose third-seeded Pope John in the final for the second straight year. Pope John edged second-seeded Voorhees, 5-2, in Monday’s other semifinal. The HWS championship game is 11 a.m. on Saturday in Phillipsburg. Hunterdon Central edged Pope John, 2-1, in the 2021 final behind a gem by McCoy.
The HWS semifinals were rained out on Saturday, pushing the attractive pairings to the home field of the high seeds on Monday. That also caused coaches to be careful with their aces, who would now be going on four days rest, instead of the much more comfortable six days between starts.
McCoy started for the Red Devils on Monday, getting the first six outs of the game, in order, before turning the game over to senior righties Jake Stollar and Logan Mason. Each threw the ball hard, with purpose and enough guile to make for a long slog for the Lions’ offense.
McCoy was placed on a strict pitch count by his coach, Kevin Cuozzi and made the most of it, striking out the first five batters he faced before “allowing” a 5-3 groundout to Eddie Appollina to end the second inning in a paltry 29 pitches.
“Kyle is used to six days between starts, so we wanted to get him out of there early,” said Cuozzi. “The big thing was we needed an early lead to make that work.”
The Hunterdon Central offense simply took what the Lions gave them, which was seven walks in the first two innings that led to five runs and the comfort zone Cuozzi craved before sending McCoy to the dugout. The Red Devils also took a few things from North Hunterdon, as well, stealing seven bases in the first two innings and eight in all.
Stollar followed McCoy and gave his team 4.1 solid innings of work, permitting two runs on two hits, striking out five, walking none and hitting a batter. Mason entered after Stollar got the first out of the seventh, a terrific play by Moskowitz who raced to his right to track down a grounder by Appollina.
Mason induced a pair of fly balls around an infield hit by Matt Twohy to close out the Lions.
“All three pitchers did a good job,” said a pleased Cuozzi. “We wanted to get Mason in there because he needed work after the layoff.” Hunterdon Central hadn’t played since an 11-3 victory over Phillipsburg on Thursday.
McCoy hadn’t pitched since his team’s 14-0 victory over High Point in the HWS quarterfinals on April 30.
“I had a few extra days off for my arm and I think I had a little more in me,” said McCoy. “I was throwing mostly fastballs but I did get two strikeouts on sliders low in the zone. That’s the one pitch I was working on in the winter.”
McCoy took advantage of North Hunterdon’s approach at the plate.
“They weren’t looking to swing early in the count, so I just tried to get ahead, with the pitch count in mind,” he said. McCoy said Cuozzi told him he’d be pulled after 30-35 pitches. “Scoring runs in the bottom of both innings helped.”
North Hunterdon starter Brad Kneller’s command was put to the challenge as the Red Devils batters worked him for 70 pitches in 1.2 innings. Hunterdon Central would score those five runs on just two hits.
Mason, the No. 3 hitter, drove in the game’s first run on a long fly to deep left field that Nick Hernandez nearly pulled in near the wall. The runners had to hold on the long fly, so Mason had to settle for a single as Christian Petino scored from second. Petino and Brandon Padre opened the bottom of the first with back-to-back walks.
After Chase Fischer drew a walk to load the bases, Padre scored on Ryan Facinelli’s double play grounder. Mason scored the third run on a wild pitch. Kneller allowed two unearned runs in the second, one on a pop fly single to right by Fischer, the other on a throwing error.
Sophomore Nick Hernandez provided North Hunterdon (6-11) with its first run in a big way. Stollar got the first two batters of the fourth inning before Hernandez, the No. 9 hitter, stepped in and launched a blast to left field for a home run, cutting the deficit to 5-1.
Hunterdon Central extended the lead to 6-1 in the bottom of the inning when Contiliano executed a pretty squeeze bunt to score Jared Cassella from third. Contiliano got some air under his bunt but it fell along the first base line as Cassella scored easily.
Stollar retired six straight batters after the home run before Wyatt Demeo reached on a dribbler down the third base line in the fifth that went for a two-out single. Stollar appeared out of the inning but an infield error prolonged it, allowing Hernandez another shot. Hernandez struck paydirt again, singling to left field to score Demeo and shave the deficit to 6-2.
While it was a game in which the Hunterdon Central bats were not noisy, their approach was outstanding.
“We had good at bats early,” said Cuozzi. “We did a good job moving the string along.”
McCoy (5-0), by the way, has yet to allow a run this season in 23 innings, striking out 43 and walking two. He’s permitted just seven hits on the season. The senior’s career strikeout-to-walk numbers are incredible, as well. He’s struck out 120 batters and walked just seven in 68.2 career innings. He has five earned runs in his career. His success works off a fastball that has been clocked at 91, a nasty curveball and an ever-improving slider. The pandemic knocked out McCoy’s sophomore season.
NOTES: Since the original Hunterdon-Warren Tournament was switched in 2010 to include Sussex County and renamed the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament, four teams have won championships. Hunterdon Central owns five titles, Pope John has three, North Hunterdon has taken home two tri-county crowns and Phillipsburg owns one title. There was no tournament in 2020.
… North Hunterdon reliever Ethan McHugh did a nice job keeping the Lions in the game. He permitted one run on three hits over 4.1 innings, striking out one and walking two in 75 gritty pitches.
… Contiliano was robbed of a hit through the right side in the fifth and likely an RBI when second baseman Chris Bravoco dove into the hole, snared the grounder and threw him out at first.
… Hunterdon Central’s leadoff batter Christian Petino drew a walk, reached on a misjudged fly ball to right and beat out an infield single. He also scored twice and stole two bases. … Fischer had two singles and drew a walk in four trips to the plate. He also stole a base. … Ryan Facinelli drew a walk and doubled over third base for the Red Devils. … Cassella drew a walk in each of his three trips to the plate and scored a run.