The Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament committee couldn’t have asked for a better championship game that saw Pope John defeat Hunterdon Central, 3-2, in walk-off fashion on Saturday in Sparta.
It had excellent, gritty pitching, clutch hitting and spectacular defensive plays from two teams everyone in West Jersey considers the best in the area and in this tournament field.
The fact that Pope John, No. 6 in the NJ.com Top 20, and No. 20 Hunterdon Central landed on the same side of the bracket, thus colliding in the semifinals, is a mere peculiarity of a seeding process that simply does not work. That, fortunately, did not rob those in attendance with viewing a wildly entertaining game between teams with a combined 26-5 record.
“It definitely had a final round atmosphere,” said Pope John’s ace Jake Wells, who limited Hunterdon Central to two runs, one earned, on five this over 6.1 innings. “It was a matchup you’d expect.”
Top-seeded Pope John advances to the HWS championship game opposite the winner of second-seeded Delaware Valley and 15th-seeded High Point Saturday in Phillipsburg. Pope John, which won HWS titles in 2011 and ’17, will be seeking its third tri-county championship.
Wells (5-0) and Hunterdon Central’s Joey DeChiaro (3-1) hooked up in a gritty gem between lefthanders as each overcame some early rockiness to carry their team into the final inning with an opportunity for victory.
“It was two great teams meeting in a semifinal,” said Wells. “Seeing Joey DeChiaro warming up in the bullpen before the game was cool. I rode my fastball early and was hitting my spots. It took me a little while to get by curveball, changeup and slider going.”
While neither pitcher would factor in the decision, Wells had the cleaner performance against 12th-seeded Hunterdon Central (11-3). He struck out five and walked three. DeChiaro also went 6.1 innings, permitting three runs, two of which were earned, on nine hits. He struck out four and walked an uncustomary four.
Both pitchers ran the NJSIAA pitch-count limit to the max and had to be pulled. Wells left with a 2-1 lead and a runner on first base and one out in the top of the seventh. Hunterdon Central would score the tying run on an errant throw to first base on a double play attempt. DeChiaro left in the bottom of the seventh after Eddie Ventresca’s one-out single and a walk to Mike Bello on a 3-2 pitch that was his 109th.
Ryan Fischer relieved and walked Luke Chanault to load the bases. Fischer then hit Chris Sabo with a 1-0 pitch to force home the winning run as the Lions knocked off the defending champion Red Devils. The righthander Sabo picked up the victory for Pope John (15-2) by getting the final two outs in the top of the seventh.
Pope John jumped on DeChiaro in the bottom of the first inning as Ventresca (3-for-4), Bello (1-for-2, 2 walks) and Chanault (2-fo-3) opened the inning with three straight singles. Ventresca and Bello each moved up a base on Bello’s single when the throw in from the outfield got away. Chanault’s hard single to right field scored them both and Pope John had a lightning quick 2-0 lead.
“Nothing was working at all today for me,” said DeChiaro, now 12-2 career in elimination games. “The only reason the score was as low as it was is because of our defense.” Hunterdon Central turned two double plays and David Cucci made an amazing catch in deep left field to strand three runners in the second inning.
Wells, meanwhile, threw 46 pitches in the first two innings alone but was able to strand a runner in the first and two more runners in the second. More importantly he seemed to find his breaking stuff after that difficult start.
“This game was probably my biggest,” said Wells. “I pitched well against Delbarton last year in the (NJSIAA) sectional tournament but lost 1-0.” Wells is committed to St. Bonaventure.
It was an inning-ending double play, started by DeChiaro, in the third that seemed to finally get the Hunterdon Central hurler on track. The senior bound for Old Dominion threw an astonishing 71 pitches through three innings and didn’t seem long for the game. But the four-year starter who has been through so many big games, did not become flustered. He threw just 27 pitches over the next three innings and got himself to the seventh inning.
“He’s the best pitcher we’ve faced in my 20 years here,” said Pope John coach Vinnie Bello of DeChiaro. ”He challenged our three guys, Eddie, Mike and Luke, gave up those hits and two runs early then nothing else. I can’t say enough about him.”
Kenny Lombardo triggered a rally in the fourth for the Red Devils with a leadoff laser into the left-center field gap. Nick Czarnecki then laid down a beautiful bunt down the third base line for a base hit as Lombardo raced to third. Ryan Godown then drew a 3-2 walk off Wells to load the bases with no outs. Tristen Spalter followed with a fly out to fairly deep center field to easily score Lombardo tagging at third and shave the Pope John lead to 2-1.
Hunterdon Central was still in business when third baseman Steven Roth stepped in and sent a laser of his own toward left-center on a 1-1 pitch. But center fielder Bello got an excellent jump, raced over and made a spectacular diving catch. Wells got the next batter, pinch-hitter Dave Pellitta, on a fly out to right field to end the threat.
“I saw the ball off the bat real well all day,” said Bello, a 6-2, 210-pound sophomore already committed to Auburn. “I saw it tailing away a bit to my left. I have confidence going in on every ball hit. I just laid out and got it.”
Wells had a great view of the play. “Mike Bello is such an excellent player,” said Wells. “I saw the ball in the air and saw Mike coming in and thought, ‘we’re going to get two.” Czarnecki got back to second on time but Bello had saved one run, maybe two.
“I move him sometimes and he gets mad at me,” said Vinnie Bello, Mike’s coach and dad. “I don’t move him so much anymore.”
It was the No. 9 hitter, freshman Brandon Padre, who started Hunterdon Central’s game-tying rally in the seventh. Padre battled back from an 0-2 hole to get the count to 2-2 against Wells. He then singled on Wells’ 113th pitch. That brought in Sabo, who promptly walked leadoff batter Cucci on four pitches.
Tyler Cassella then hit a bouncer to second base. Trevor Betumo fielded it cleanly, raced to tag second base for the second out, wheeled and fired to first trying to get a game-ending double play. But Betumo’s throw sailed high and over Chanault’s head at first base. Christian Masters, running for Padre, raced home from second with the tying run.
But Sabo got No. 3 hitter Peter Ciuffreda to bounce out to shortstop to end the inning.
DeChiaro entered the last of the seventh with just 12 pitches remaining. He got a great start by getting the first out on one pitch. But up stepped the leadoff hitter Ventresca, who had hit everything hard in his first three at bats. He fought off a changeup on a 1-2 pitch and lofted it down the right field line for a single. Then Bello’s walk spelled the end for DeChiaro.
Ventresca had just returned a game earlier from a sprained ligament injury in his left ankle and couldn’t have looked sharper, reaching DeChiaro for hits on three different pitches, a fastball, a curveball and a changeup.
Ventresca hit a 1-2 pitch off DeChiaro in the seventh. “I love hitting with two-strikes. I think my average is best when I hit with two strikes.”
Chenault’s two-run single in the first set the tone for Pope John. His lone out was as loud as they come and very nearly broke the game completely open. The lefty hitting junior first baseman committed to Penn State, hit an opposite field bomb to straightaway left field that carried toward the fence. But fleet-footed Cucci made a remarkable running, over-the-shoulder catch in front of the fence to strand the bases loaded.
NOTES: Ventresca is another Division recruit for Pope John. But the junior shortstop is headed to Virginia Tech on a wrestling scholarship. Ventresca won the NJSIAA championship this year at 120 pounds.