Brandon Padre was named the HWS MVP. He’s surrounded by his happy teammates.
Junior lefty James Scott, senior catcher Brandon Padre and a seemingly unending array of contributors guided Hunterdon Central, ranked No. 10 in the state by NJ.com, to its second straight Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex championship.
Scott stepped in for ailing Red Devils ace Kyle McCoy and Padre steered the ship from behind the plate while going 3-for-4 at the plate, scoring twice and knocking in a run as top-seeded Hunterdon Central cruised to a 12-3 victory over third-seeded Pope John.
Hunterdon Central, which edged Pope John, 2-1, in the 2021 final, won its sixth tri-county tournament since its inception in 2010. Pope John last won a HWS crown in 2019 after defeating Hunterdon Central in the semifinals. Hunterdon Central also owns 10 Hunterdon-Warren titles, an event contested from 1985-to-2009.
There was no shortage of individual storylines in this one and there were more than a couple themes to follow.
Junior James Scott received a text from Hunterdon Central baseball coach Kevin Cuozzi late Monday night that would change his own story in a dramatic way.
“Coach texted me about 9:30-10 and said, ‘McCoy is a little sore after today’s game. You’re going on Saturday.’ I was ready to go right from that point,” said Scott.
Padre was never concerned that his team had resorted to Option 2 in a championship game.
“James has been there before,” said Padre, a four-year starter behind the plate for the Red Devils. “He had two huge starts in the state tournament for us last year. He’s battle tested and ready for the states this year. He’ll be the guy getting all of these big games next year.”
Scott delivered as expected by his teammates. He permitted three runs – none of which were earned – on two hits, struck out seven, walked one and hit two batters. He was one out away from finishing the fourth inning with a one-hit, scoreless effort when he hit Gabe Weir with a pitch. Then, in the process of walking Brian McKenna, Padre had Weir picked off at first base but his throw was wide of the bag, allowing Weir to reach second.
Nick Buckman then jumped on a high fastball and launched it over the left field fence to shave the Hunterdon Central lead to 7-3.
“I was getting my four-seam fastball spotted outside pretty well,” said Scott. “I worked my curveball off that. Even the fastball their guy hit for the home run, I thought, was a good pitch. He just put a good swing on it.”
Scott survived a 22-pitch top of the first when he got Weir swinging at a 3-2 fastball to strand runners on second and third.
“That was big right there,” said Scott. “I just didn’t settle in right away. They put up a good fight at the plate.”
Scott said he leaned on Padre, as well. “He’s our leader behind the plate, keeps everything in front of him and he gets it done with his bat, too,” said Scott. “That’s why he’s the MVP.
Padre was in the middle of a big bottom of the first inning when Hunterdon Central struck for four runs on four hits and sent nine batters to the plate. He would force Pope John starter Anthony Bubba out of the game after he threw 38 pitches to seven batters and got just two outs.
“We knew they had three good arms they could throw at us,” said Padre. “We wanted to battle them.” Hunterdon Central would put forth some epic at bats, even pushing reliever Ayden Alexander to 83 pitches in 3.1 innings.
Bubba hit leadoff batter Christian Petino with a 2-2 pitch to start the bottom of the first and the Red Devils bats sprung to life. Mike Contiliano singled through the left side and raced to second as the throw came into third base too late for Petino. Logan Mason then rocked a single to center field to score both runners and stake Hunterdon Central to a quick 2-0 lead. Padre stepped in with one out and rocketed a shot over third base for a double that scored Mason with the third run. A two-out walk to Ferri marked Bubba’s end and Jared Cassella greeted Alexander with a two-out RBI single through the left side to lift the lead to 4-0.
Cassella’s hit came at the end of an epic nine-pitch at bat. The Red Devils’ DH would put Alexander through the grinder again in the fourth during a 13-pitch adventure that ended with a line out to right field. Alexander, to his credit, ended that marathon at bat by throwing eight straight strikes.
Padre had battled a sore elbow at the start of the season and also missed time due to a case of COVID. He looks to be in typical mid-season Padre form. “I wasn’t right for a couple games when I came back from COVID,” he said. “I made an adjustment, keeping my hands inside the ball. And I was too passive, not swinging hard enough.”
It looks like the old hard-hitting, clutch Padre who batted .350, drove in 20 runs and ripped 9 doubles as a junior. He would single and score in the third inning and single again in the fourth.
Chase Fischer drew a walk to ignite the three-run rally in the third that extended the Hunterdon Central lead to 7-0. Ferri followed Padre’s single with a walk as Fischer scored on a wild pitch. Chase Moskowitz, the productive No. 9 hitter, walked to load the bases and Petino slammed a single through the middle to bring home two runs and cap the rally.
Buchman’s homer in the fourth gave Pope John reason for hope. Plus it had driven Scott’s pitch count up to 83 after a 27-pitch fourth-inning. Cuozzi would opt for his hard-throwing duo of righthanders, Jake Stollar and Mason, to close it out. But first, Fischer would restore some order.
The Rider-bound first baseman stepped in with one out in the bottom of the fourth and Pope John still fired up off Buckman’s homer. Fischer jumped on a fastball from Alexander and drove it well beyond the 365-foot sign in left-center field for a solo home run. “I was hunting fastballs, expected one and got one,” said Fischer.”
Fischer jumped on a chest-high fastball, whether he remembers it or not. “I couldn’t tell you where the pitch was,” he said. “I blacked out. That’s what happens when I get it all.”
Fischer popped out in the first inning after driving a shot well beyond the fence in left field but foul. “That first inning set the tone today,” said Fischer. “We started the season a little slow but we’ve gotten hot and are playing together. We seem to play better in bigger games.” Hunterdon Central (16-3) has won 12 straight games since starting the season at 4-3.
Hunterdon Central put a cap on their HWS championship with a four-run sixth that extended its lead to 12-3. Mason started it with an infield single and raced all the way to third as the throw got away. He alertly scored on a wild pitch right before Fischer followed with a laser through the middle of the diamond into center field for a single.
Ryan Facinelli singled and Ferri drew a nine-pitch walk to load the bases. Moskowitz then singled hard to left to score Fischer and Facinelli. Ferri, who drew his third walk, would score on an errant pick off attempt at first for the 12-3 margin.
Stollar and Mason combined on three scoreless innings, permitting two hits while striking out one and walking two.
“James has been extremely efficient his last couple starts,” said Cuozzi. Scott limited a terrific Ridge lineup to four hits over six innings on May 3, striking out 11 and walking one. “You may love to have your No. 1 in a game like this but James has hit the ground running. A lot of teams would love to have him as their No. 1.”
Aside from the efforts of Scott, Padre and his relievers, Cuozzi was thrilled with his hitters’ approach at the plate.
“It’s patience,” he said. “We are putting together one quality at bat after another. They are smart at bats. When that happens, they get their pitches to hit. They are an experienced team. They’ve been there before.”
Said Fischer, “There are no easy outs with us.”
NOTES: The Maryland-bound McCoy said, “I felt a little something, soreness or stiffness, with my elbow after Monday’s game. We felt it would be better if I missed today’s game and gave it a week, so I’m ready for states.”
Pope John’s leadoff hitter Mac Tufts had a single and drew two walks in four trips to the plate. Michael Gallaway had a single through the right side in the seventh. The other two Pope John hits were infield hits by Nolan Niziol and Joe Bonfiglio.