What was clearly one of the very best played games of the NJSIAA state tournament week was marred by something as simple as addition.
The person assigned to keep track of pitch counts for both pitching staffs, butchered the menial task and may have affected the outcome of the game.
Yes, it would be unfair to say Middletown North, which won its first NJSIAA group championship, did not earn its wildly entertaining 5-4 victory over Cranford in the Group 3 championship game at Veterans Park in Hamilton. But when a pitcher is allowed to face two batters more than he should, and retires both – the final out of the seventh and first out of the eighth innings – we have a problem.
Middletown North’s Seton Hall-bound Colin Dowlen (121 pitches) was terrific in a grinder of an effort against what is clearly one of the top lineups in the state. He surrendered 10 hits to the Cougars, No. 6 in the NJ.com Top 20 but was able to hold the Union County school to four runs. He also struck out three and walked four, one intentionally.
“That definitely was one of the best lineups we’ve seen all year,” said Dowlen.
Cranford’s Rider-bound righty Will Gallagher (105 pitches) absorbed the loss but was equally gritty in working seven-plus innings. He permitted four runs, three of which were earned, on seven hits, struck out two, walked two and hit two batters.
Gallagher was pulled by Cranford coach Dennis McCaffery in the eighth after allowing a leadoff infield single to Dowlen and Michael Weinbel’s subsequent single through the left side. McCaffery was under the understanding that Gallagher had reached 110 pitches.
The pitch-count issue is most upsetting because the Cranford bench, the Veterans Park scoreboard operator, this 40-plus year reporter and two other reporters all had the exact same pitch-count numbers for both Dowlen and Gallagher. The one person that had significantly different numbers was the one person paid to do the job.
Dowlen reached the 110-pitch limit during a six-pitch at bat in which Lucca Limiera flew out to left for the second out of the top of the seventh. Jake Carter had led off with a single, stole second and stayed there when Shane Van Dam was intentionally walked with one out. At that point, Dowlen was at 113 pitches. A pitcher is permitted to finish the current at bat once he reaches 110.
This is when the Cranford coaching staff approached the umpires to ask why Dowlen was still in the game and the pitch count number on the scoreboard said 113. Incredibly, when they reached the pitch-counter behind the plate, they were told Dowlen had 14 more pitches. That number would change two or three times before Dowlen’s outing ended.
In fact, after Dowlen struck out Grady Shea to end the seventh, reaching 117 pitches, McCaffery came to the pitch-counter, who told him Dowlen was at 110 pitches (somehow) and was now done. Here’s where it gets hair-pulling. While reliever Matt Adamson was warming up to replace Dowlen and start the eighth inning, both McCaffery and Middletown North coach Ryan McCabe came to the pitch-counter and McCaffery said, “I’m asking one more time. He’s at 110, right?” The pitch-counter said, “No. I just recounted. He’s at 109. He gets one more batter.”
McCabe turned and called to Dowlen to take the mound. Dowlen and his 117 pitches returned to the mound to help preserve a one-run lead. He proceeded to induce Tony Silva to pop out to first base on the fourth pitch for the first out. Dowlen, now at 121 pitches, was finally done for the day.
“I didn’t know how many pitches I had,” said Dowlen. “I was told I could go back out there. I knew Matt would be ready.”
As someone who has done pitch counts as he covers games for at least 25 years – when pitch counts suddenly became an interest – this reporter can tell you, it’s truly difficult to be off more than one or two pitches without just not paying attention or having an issue with addition. We’ll go with the first guess.
“We’ve filed a protest with the NJSIAA,” said McCaffery. “They won the game with their pitcher breaking the rules. It’s black and white. It says it right in the rules. It’s the coach’s responsibility to know his pitcher’s pitch count. It says if you break the rules, you forfeit the game.”
Reliever Adamson hit Jack Conley with a pitch before getting Gallagher to fly out to right field for the second out of the Cranford eighth. The speedy Conley stole second with sophomore No. 9 hitter Dennis McCaffery, the coach’s son, at the plate. McCaffery had a single in the fifth and good at bats all day. This one was no different. But his hard shot to left field was hauled in by Jason Quardt to end the inning.
On deck was Cranford’s leadoff batter Jake Carter, who had a double, two singles and a walk in four trips against Dowlen. Who knows if Carter would have come up with Adamson on the mound for a full inning.
Middletown North walked it off in the bottom of the eighth inning when reliever Sean Woodruff fielded a comebacker from Jason Quardt with the bases loaded and one out. Woodruff fired home for the second out and catcher Limiera fired to first for what looked like an inning-ending double play, but the throw got away, allowing Andrew Lombardi to race home with the winning run.
Both teams came out swinging. Carter ripped a 3-2 pitch from Dowlen down the left field line for a game-opening double. But he cost his team a run when he got nailed trying to take third on a 5-3 groundout. First baseman Zach Hampton fired back to third to get Carter for the second out. That hurt even more when Van Dam stepped in and unloaded a long home run over the fence in left field for a 1-0 lead.
The Lions answered with two runs in the bottom of the first on an RBI single by Dowlen and a wild pitch that enabled Ryan Frontera to score from third.
Both pitchers settled in but each had much work to do to contain the opposing lineup. Cranford tied the game at 2-2 on Ryan Jaros sac fly. Carter had drawn a leadoff walk, stole second and took third when the throw to second sailed into center field.
Lombardi put Middletown North back in front when he unleashed a two-out solo home run to dead-center field, 375 feet away, in the fourth. That’s a part of Bob DeMeo Field that rarely sees balls leave the park.
Cranford (25-5) responded with two runs in the top of the sixth to take a 4-3 lead. And it all happened after Grady hit into a double play. Silva walked, Conley singled and Gallagher chased Silva home with a single to left-center to tie the game. Conley took third on the hit. Dowlen then uncorked a wild pitch as Conley raced home with the go-ahead run.
The deep Middletown North (21-10) lineup, one that helped forge an 11-game season-ending winning streak, rallied with two outs in the sixth to tie it up again, at 4-4. Gallagher hit Weinbel with a pitch and Hampton reached on a throwing error. That brought up Lombardi and he delivered once again, bouncing a hot grounder over third base for a single that scored Weinbel.
“We just never give up,” said Dowlen. “You couldn’t play with a better group of kids.”
It’s a great story of an impressive finish to the season for Middletown North, but Cranford and McCaffery aren’t buying it. Some will ask, why didn’t Cranford’s staff check the pitch count every inning?
“Once I see the scoreboard with the pitch count, and it says the same numbers as we have, every inning of the game, I assume my pitch counts are correct,” said McCaffery. “The pitch-counter introduced himself to me before the game. I didn’t know who he was. I never met him before and never saw him again (until the seventh inning). I assumed he was up in the box working the pitch count on the scoreboard. I assumed those numbers were official.
“It’s not my responsibility to warn their coach or inform their coach of what their pitcher’s pitch count is, that’s on him. It says it in the rules. My only responsibility is to know my own pitcher’s pitch count and inform the officials when something happens that affects my team.
“I took my Division 1 pitcher out of the game when I thought he reached the pitch limit. Their coach left his Division 1 pitcher in the game when he reached his limit.”
NOTES: Cranford was chasing its fifth state championship and first since 2013. It also won the Last Dance championship held in July of 2020 after that season was wiped out by COVID. Cranford owns Group 3 titles in 1997, 2010, ’12 and ’13. The Cougars also fell in the Group 3 final in 2000, ’03, and ’17. … Middletown North also reached the Group 4 final in 1983.