The Matt Baker who pitched an uneventful final six innings of baseball bore little resemblance to the Matt Baker who pitched the first inning against South Brunswick in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament championship game on Sunday.
Baker’s stuff wasn’t quite there in the first frame and he lost his head to the point where he balked home a run. That gift would be the only one he afforded South Brunswick hitters the rest of the day. Baker would pitch a five-hit gem to lead the Knights to a 2-1 victory over the Vikings and its first GMC tournament title since 2011.
It is Old Bridge’s third GMC Tournament championship. South Brunswick, which last won the tournament in 2010, was also seeking its third county crown.
“I think Matt has a habit of trying to be perfect in the first inning,” said Old Bridge coach Matt Donaghue. “Once he settles in and gets his slider going he’s tough.”
The Kean University-bound Baker (3-0) was tough and efficient. He struck out six, walked none and hit two batters. He retired 10 in a row after Matt Lauri’s leadoff single in the third inning. Baker induces 13 ground ball outs, five of which were comebackers the senior handled ably.
Baker’s fastball had more hop, his curveball hit the desired spots and his slider became a brutally unfair out pitch from the second inning on. But Baker’s elevated pitch count would require lefty reliever Jason Gilman to be inserted in a dramatic moment in the top of the seventh before South Brunswick reluctantly succumbed.
South Brunswick’s righthander Justin Cross (4-2), meanwhile, limited top-seeded Old Bridge (19-6) to two runs, one of which was earned, on four hits over six innings. He struck out four and walked four in a mostly tidy outing in which he deserved a better fate.
It appeared Cross would get plenty of offensive support the way the Vikings started things against Baker. Lauri beat out an infield single with one out in the top of the first, stole second and reached third on Mike Reyes’ single to right field.
Baker was checking both runners with Mike Slover at the plate when made a move toward first base. But he never threw the ball. The balk sent Lauri home with the game’s first run and Reyes took second. To make matters worse, Baker plunked the lefty-hitting Slover with an 0-2 pitch. But the big righty bore down and got the next two batters on four pitches, a curveball for a strikeout and a comebacker to get out of it.
Old Bridge quickly answered with a run of its own to cover Baker’s raggedy first inning.
Elliot Hayward drew a six-pitch leadoff walk. He moved to second on Danny Chiofalo’s single through the left side before Cross walked St. John’s University-bound Sonny Fauci to load the bases with no outs. Cross, to his credit, minimized the damage.
Cleanup hitter Matt Herbstman bounced into a 3-2 force for the first out as first baseman Jordan Glassman made a fine play on a slow roller to get the ball to the plate. And catcher Slover made a sprawling scoop to get the out. Mike Oliva then brought Chiofalo home with a fielder’s choice bouncer in the middle of the diamond, tying the game at 1-1.
Cross would get out of it from there but he would permit an unearned run in the second that would be the difference in the game.
John Cardile started the rally with two outs when he reached on an infield throwing error. Cardile stole second with Hayward at the plate and would score moments later. Hayward hit a bouncer deep in the hole at shortstop. Nick Delacruz snared it and made an ill-advised throw to first. The speedy Hayward had the throw beat anyway, but the heave got away as Cardile raced home with the go-ahead run.
Cross would strand three Old Bridge runners in scoring position after that to keep the Vikings in the game. That would prove critical when South Brunswick took a final run at Baker in the top of the seventh.
Baker, who carried 96 pitches into the seventh, plunked leadoff batter Jacob Ciccone on an 0-2 pitch. But he got the next two batters on ground balls as pinch-runner Jay Chaddah took second. Baker was now at 105 pitches and had to face leadoff batter Delacruz with just five pitches remaining on his NJSIAA pitch count limit.
Delacruz put together a beauty of an eight-pitch at bat, during which Chaddah stole third base. With the tying run just 90 feet from home, Delacruz drew a walk that forced Baker from the game.
“That was tough but Jason (Gilman) had worked so hard in the bullpen all season,” said Baker, “I knew he’d get it done.”
That’s all fine and good, but Gilman, just a sophomore, had to enter the game with runners on first and third, two outs, and the GMC championship laying heavy on his shoulders.
“I’ve been in situations like that before,” said Gilman. “I trusted my stuff and knew my defense would have my back.”
Gilman didn’t seem the least bit awed by the circumstances as Lauri, already two hits to his resume on the day, worked the count to 2-2. Gilman then fired the same pitch that had been Baker’s bread and butter all day – a slider. “I just tried to throw the best pitch I’ve ever thrown,”
Lauri could only wave at it for strike three as the Old Bridge dugout emptied in celebration.
“Jason’s not the type of kid to get rattled,” said Donaghue. “He pitched well in the St. Joes game, too, so we were confident in him.”
Gilman pitched a scoreless top of the eight inning against St. Joseph (Met.) before Old Bridge scored in the bottom of the inning to make him a winner and advance to the final via an identical 2-1 score.
NOTES: Old Bridge and South Brunswick met in the first two games of the season and split the pair. This win for Old Bridge, however, doesn’t necessarily decide the season series. Both teams begin play in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 tournament on Monday. Old Bridge, the No. 5 seed, plays 12th-seeded Montgomery. South Brunswick, the No. 6 seed, plays 11th-seeded Sayreville. Each would have to win three straight state games to meet again on May 31 in the sectional final. The way these two teams are playing, that would not be a surprise. Old Bridge won its only sectional title in 2015.