Mike Fattore, left, and Jimmy Turchi combined to go 8-for-8 with 9 RBI and 7 runs scored.
Baseball throws you curveballs all the time, but maybe we should have seen this one coming.
Bridgewater-Raritan had survived the daily Skyland Conference wars and one of the more difficult independent schedules in the state to the tune of a 21-6 record. And they did that saddled with debilitating injuries to its No. 1 and No. 2 starting pitchers.
Still, Bridgewater-Raritan faced a critical NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 quarterfinal game against a Hunterdon Central team that has had its number over the years. Yes, the Panthers owned two regular season wins against the Red Devils, but this was the state tournament, Hunterdon Central’s playland. The Red Devils own five Group 4 state titles and reached their seventh state final just a year ago. Bridgewater-Raritan is still looking for its first state crown.
Enter a Bridgewater lineup that has produced 8 runs a game and a school record 242 runs. Paired with the top end of a Hunterdon Central pitching staff that never really got its bearing this season, a noisy afternoon in Bridgewater could have been expected.
Behind the bats of Mike Fattore and Jimmy Turchi, the Panthers unloaded on four Hunterdon Central pitchers for 16 hits on the way to a stunning 19-8 victory in five innings that sent the home team to the sectional semifinals opposite Woodbridge on Tuesday. Woodbridge edged Watchung Hills, 3-2 in that quarterfinal. On the top of the bracket, conference rival Ridge advanced to meet Bayonne in the other semifinal.
The victory for 22-7 Bridgewater-Raritan set a school record for wins.
What the 6-4, 215-pound Fattore did with his bat was a thing of legend. The Panthers’ No. 4 hitter bound for Belmont Abbey drove in seven runs with a pair of two-run doubles in his first two at bats, a two-run home run in his third trip to the plate and an RBI single in his second at bat in the third inning. So, through three innings he had completed a week’s worth of damage.
“Mike got off to a bit of a slow start but he’s been swinging the bat better,” said Bridgewater-Raritan coach Max Newill. “Today was his day.”
The 4-for-4 afternoon raised Fattore’s batting average to .343 to go with his 21 RBI. The Panthers 19-run output followed Monday’s 20-1 victory over Dickinson in the first round of the tournament.
“After Monday, we felt we could do something big,” said Fattore. “I knew they would try to work around me, so I thought I could get ahead in the count then see pitches I liked.” Hunterdon Central ace James Scott battled with command and the Panthers pounced.
Turchi, batting out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup, went 4-for-4 with a walk, scored four runs and drove in two runs.
Fattore’s first hit was a big one. He ripped a two-run grounds rule double to left field with one out in the bottom of the first inning to erase a 1-0 Hunterdon Central lead. Andrew Nguyen had led off the game in the top of the inning with a shocking home run to left on starter Noah Matheson’s very first pitch.
“We were kind of shocked by that,” said Fattore. “I’m happy we bounced back and set the tone after that for the rest of the game.”
The Panthers got out of a jam in the first on shortstop Matt Moore’s 6-U-3 double play before their batters went to work, scoring six runs off Red Devils starter James Scott in the bottom of the inning. Frankie Verano followed Fattore’s double with an RBI double of his own. Senior Jacob Rosado singled home a run, Moore brought home a run on a fielder’s choice bouncer to second, and a second run scored on the failed double play attempt that ended with an errant throw to first base.
The Panthers’ 6-1 lead ballooned to 10-1 when they struck for four runs in the second inning. Turchi and Fattore’s younger brother, junior Matt Fattore, started the rally with back-to-back singles. Mike Fattore delivered them both with his second straight double and Bridgewater was off and running again. Sophomore J.R. Rosado, Jacob’s younger brother, singled in a run and Joey Letko, who drew a walk, later scored on a throwing error.
“You could see in BP we were locked in,” said the County College of Morris-bound Turchi. “But we did not expect to explode offensively against Scott. He has a real tough curveball. We were able to attack from ahead in the count and we found some holes.”
Hunterdon Central, to its credit, did not cower in the face of Bridgewater’s onslaught. The Red Devils responded with four runs in the top of the third to draw within a still manageable 10-5. Matheson contributed to his trouble by hitting a batter and issuing two walks around a Jimmy Lundari single, all with two outs. Noah Baird drew that second walk, forcing home the first run then Luke Breuer followed with a single to center to score two more runs. Baird would score from third on an infield error.
But Turchi and Mike Fattore reset the table for Bridgewater once again in the bottom of the inning. Turchi led off and singled through the left side. Fattore then stepped in with one out and worked the count against Alex Chayko to 3-1. He then blasted a shot over the fence in left field for a two-run homer and a 12-5 lead.
“I can’t remember ever getting seven RBI in a game,” said Fattore. “I’m glad I did it when we needed it most.”
Bridgewater tacked on eight runs in total in the third inning to extend the lead to 18-5. Turchi drove in two with a single, the Fattore brothers each had an RBI single, Moore absorbed a hit by pitch to force in a run and Devin Goldberg got a run in on a fielder’s choice grounder.
Bridgewater would send 10 batters to the plate in the first inning, nine batters hit in the second and 13 batters got a turn in the third.
Meanwhile, Hunterdon Central, which finished an uncharacteristic 13-10 on the season, added three runs in the fifth before reliever Cory Rible put an end to it with a strikeout. Noah Baird doubled and scored on pinch-hitter Tate LaFerrera’s double, Nguyen, 2-for-4, RBI, 2 runs, singled before Mike Contiliano drove in two runs with a single to left-center.
“Our bats were there,” said Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi. “But we made some mistakes. Hey, they hit the ball. It seemed like no outs came easy.”
A bigger issue for Hunterdon Central was a pitching staff left unsettled by the late start to the season by its expected ace Scott, who would only pitch seven innings on the season after battling a sore arm. His attempts to return to form didn’t come together in his last two of three starts. While his velocity was there, his command hadn’t caught up. The left-handed Scott, who was terrific in big spots in 2022 for the Red Devils, will pitch next year for Division 2 Bloomsburg. Another senior, Baird, who moved impressively toward the front of the rotation, was unavailable on Thursday due to arm soreness.
Bridgewater-Raritan has navigated its pitching woes, though, with ace Jason Cozzi limited to 15 innings with back problems and Matt Fattore registering just 17 innings due to forearm tendonitis. But there is timely good news to report on both.
“They are both healthy now and should be able to give us some innings next week,” says Newill. The sectional semis are set for Tuesday and, if things go well, the final is Friday. The state semifinals and championship game are the following week.
NOTES: While Bridgewater-Raritan hasn’t won a state title as of yet, Bridgewater West won the Group 2 state title in 1989 under the direction of coach Norm Hewitt and with a force at the plate in none other than Hunterdon Central assistant coach John Augusta, whose son, Nick, is a junior first baseman for the Red Devils. Bridgewater East and West merged in September of 1991 to form Bridgewater-Raritan.
…Eight of the nine Bridgewater batters scored a run and eight of the nine had at least one hit. The one batter without a hit, Joey Letko, drew three walks in four at bats and scored three runs.
…Leadoff batter Devin Goldberg (2-for-5) was on base four out of five times, scoring two runs and driving in two for the Panthers.
…Bridgewater-Raritan swept the season series with Hunterdon Central, winning 4-2 on April 13 and 4-3 in 10 innings on May 3 in its Skyland Conference matchups.
…Newill is in his 21st season at Bridgewater-Raritan and 16th year as the head coach (one of those was the COVID year). He said, “In my 21 years here, I’ve never seen the wind blowing out.” Neither home run hit seemed to need any assistance but there were a number of deep balls that surely enjoyed some aid from the wind.
…The Panthers’ batting practice prior to the game was apparently a prodigious one, as Newill and his players mentioned as much in the post game. “It doesn’t always carry over, but it certainly did today,” said Newill.
…Hunterdon Central’s No. 2 hitter, junior Mike Contiliano, finished the season with a team leading 37 hits, a year after leading the Red Devils with 38 hits as a sophomore.