Hunterdon Central first baseman Nick Ferri waits for throw as Seton Hall base runner dives back to first.
Something had to give.
Seton Hall Prep visited undefeated and second-ranked Hunterdon Central on a 13-1 roll. Both teams boast lethal lineups and both teams were resting front line pitching for county tournament games on Saturday.
Strike up the fireworks.
The Pirates No. 6 hitter Ryan Sprock not only provided the highlight of the fireworks show – a go-ahead three-run double in the fifth inning – but came in and got the last four outs to close out the Red Devils for an entertaining 7-6 victory.
Seton Hall Prep (14-3-1), somehow unranked through Wednesday, also picked up a 52-point bonanza in power points that are sure to vault the Pirates further up the NJSIAA Non-Public A North standings. Seton Hall entered the day as the third-ranked team in the section. Power point rankings determine seeding for the NJSIAA state tournament.
The Pirates timing is excellent with Sunday’s fast approaching qualification cutoff looming.
The loss was the first for Hunterdon Central (14-1), which attempted to navigate the Seton Hall Prep lineup with three pitchers who had never thrown a varsity pitch. Righthanders Chase Fisher, Nick Ferri and Christian Petino did what they could to keep their team afloat.
“We were kind of at the end of our road as far as eligible pitchers were concerned,” said Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi. “For throwing three positional guys who haven’t pitched all year, we hung in there. I think our three pitchers competed and did a good job for the most point.”
It was no small victory, though, for Seton Hall, which seems to have improved by the game since an unsightly and uncustomary 1-2-1 start to the season. And the game, it should be noted, had all the intensity of a state tournament contest, minus the marquis hurlers. Both dugouts were on every pitch.
“It’s a nice win and a good time for it,” said Seton Hall Prep coach Mike Sheppard, Jr., who now has 804 of them. “To play a team of this caliber, on the road and on a grass field is certainly not easy.” Seton Hall plays its home games on artificial turf.
Seton Hall has a difficult Super Essex Conference game on Thursday at home against Montclair then its all hands on deck Saturday at Yogi Berra Stadium when the Pirates meet heated rival Millburn for the Greater Newark Tournament championship. While Seton Hall may not have a bonafide ace, Ryan O’Rourke and John Cerwinski have been the frontline arms and the hard-throwing Sprock has been a force out of the pen.
Hunterdon Central travels to Montgomery on Thursday, which has a history of offering difficult challenges on the mound, and concludes its five-games-in-six-days week with its Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament semifinal opposite Delaware Valley at Centenary College in Hackettstown. Lefthander Kyle McCoy, who has been virtually untouchable thus far, will get the nod for Hunterdon Central.
It was a good day to be a hitter on Wednesday in Flemington and there was no better one than Sprock, who singled and scored in Seton Hall’s three-run second inning and singled again in the fourth when the Pirates extended their lead to 4-2. Both singles were absolute lasers to left field.
But Hunterdon Central, as it has does all season, answered in a big way. It struck for three runs in the bottom of the fourth to take its first lead of the game at 5-4 and, at least temporarily, seized the momentum.
Ryan Facinelli led off with a single to left. Logan Mason followed with a single to center before Dylan Brunetti dropped a gorgeous bunt down the third base line for a single that loaded the bases with no outs. Nick Ferri grounded out to the first base to get one run home and move the runners up. Mason scored on a passed ball and Brandon Padre delivered a clutch two-out single to center to score Brunetti with the go-ahead run.
Ferri, who relieved Fisher in the third, was in his third inning of work in the fifth and he started to lose the plate. Ferri walked Sam Nomura, Chris Maldonado and Andrew Fernandez around a pair of outs to load the bases. The walk to Fernandez was particularly troublesome because it brought up the red hot Sprock and there was nowhere to put him.
“I knew we were in a tight spot with the bases juiced,” said Sprock. “I just wanted to hit something fair.” Sprock hit a hard bouncer over third base that hit the foul line beyond third base and bounded down the left field line for a three-run double and, suddenly, a 7-5 Seton Hall lead. “I saw the chalk kick up,” said Sprock. “That was a good feeling.”
Gerard Perillo was Seton Hall’s third pitcher in the game and came in to get the last out of the fourth and retired the Red Devils in order in the fifth. But he’d find himself in trouble in the sixth.
Perillo plunked Brunetti with a pitch to start things adversely in the sixth. The speedy Brunetti then stole second and raced to third when Chase Moskowitz’s pop-up between the pitcher’s mound and the edge of the grass apron fell for an odd single. The Pirates got a break when Brunetti tried to score on a wild pitch that didn’t quite get far enough away and was thrown out 2-1. Nathan Riebe, running for Moskowitz, raced all the way to third on the play.
Petino, Hunterdon Central’s leadoff hitter, then launched a deep shot to left that hopped the fence for a grounds rule double and brought Riebe home, trimming the deficit to 7-6. It appeared Hunterdon Central was about to pull one of its Houdini’s moves in the late game.
That’s when Sprock came and in to face the red hot Padre, who got the count to 3-2 before hitting a bouncer back to the mound for the third out. Nick Czarnecki reached on an infield error leading off the bottom of the seventh for Hunterdon Central, but Sprock retired the side in order from there to lock it down for the Pirates.
“You don’t go into games thinking about rankings,” said Sprock. “You just play your best game and you want to improve every game. It’s the time of the year you look forward to. It seems like we’ve been waiting for this for two years.”
It was a typical Sheppard, Jr. coached game from the Seton Hall side, replete with bunts, aggressive base running, squeeze bunt attempts, the whole baseball bag of tricks.
“Our goal was to put pressure on then,” said Sheppard, Jr. “We had two suicide attempts, we were stealing bases. We wanted to do things that teams they play don’t usually do.”
Hunterdon Central begins getting its front line pitchers back tomorrow when its No. 2, James Scott, takes the mound against Montgomery, which will likely counter with its ace, Rutgers-bound righty Cole Hansen. The Red Devils defeated Hansen, 2-0, on April 27 behind the irrepressible McCoy.
“We’ll bounce back,” said Padre (2-for-4, double), the Red Devils catcher. “Scott will be on the mound and it’ll be a new day of baseball for us.”
Cuozzi was anxious to turn the page, too.
“This loss is a bit of a reset for us,” said Cuozzi. “We’ll see how we deal with adversity. That was one of the more talented teams we’ve faced this year and it was great to play them right before the states because that’s the type of team we’ll face in the sectional finals.”
NOTES: Hunterdon Central pitched very carefully to Clemson-bound junior Chris Maldonado, who entered the game with a staggering 33 RBI and 5 HRs to go with a batting average above .500. Maldonado drew a pair of walks and scored a run. He also flew out to center fielder twice. Nick Ferri made a diving catch on Maldonado’s shallow fly to center in the seventh.
… Sometimes a player can get charged with an error despite making a great play. Red Devils shortstop Ryan Facinelli made a terrific diving stop of a shot by Fernandez in the fourth and bounced up and fired to first. The ball had Fernandez beat but the throw pulled first baseman Chase Fisher off the bag, hence the unkind error.
… Third baseman Brunetti made a diving stop of a shot in the hole by Seton Hall’s Alex Kim leading off the sixth. Brunetti hopped up and made a perfect throw for the out. … Logan Mason, who will be assured of some innings on the mound in the next couple days, had a pair of singles and scored two runs out of the sixth spot in the lineup. … Moskowitz, Hunterdon Central’s No. 9 hitter, delivered a two-run double in the second, was hit by a pitch and had the pop single in the sixth. … Fernandez reached base all four trips to the plate, a hit-by-pitch, error, walk and a double in his last at bat in the seventh. … Kim singled and scored in the second and drove in a run with a fielder’s choice grounder in the fourth.
Thank you to Sarah Scott for the excellent photos in this game story.