The Somerset County Tournament championship game is the gift that just keeps giving.
Whether its extra inning drama, late game heroics, stunning upsets or epic pitchers duels, you can expect to be riveted at the tournament’s favorite locale, TD Bank Park in Bridgewater, home of the Somerset Patriots.
Twelfth-seeded Rutgers Prep (9-9) and its crafty junior righthander Max Treonze ensured the large crowd on Tuesday night would witness a picturesque pitchers duel, then delivered a stunning upset in a 1-0 victory over top-seeded and high-flying Ridge (17-3).
The county championship was the second for Rutgers Prep, which won its first SCT crown in 2017, a 7-2 victory over Montgomery. Ridge was chasing its eighth SCT title, having won in 1976, ‘80, ‘84, ‘85, ‘89, 2011 and ‘22. Ridge also lost in the 2014 and ‘19 finals. Red Devils 18-year coach Tom Blackwell played on Ridge’s 1989 championship team.
Treonze out-dueled Ridge’s righty Connor Byrne, who pitched the Red Devils to the 2022 SCT title against an almost identical Rutgers Prep team, and was terrific once again.
The upset wasn’t ensured until first baseman Zach Fronio threw out pinch-runner Josh Latourette at the plate on the back end of a beautiful relay with right fielder James Jackman for the second out of the bottom of the seventh inning.
Treonze (5-0) scattered six hits over seven tidy shutout innings, struck out 11 and, critically, walked none while throwing just 91 pitches. Byrne (4-1), who pitched a perfect game in a quarterfinals victory over Bernards, was nearly flawless except for the first inning run he allowed and that Treonze protected with his life. The Siena-bound Byrne permitted the one run on five hits, struck out 10 and walked one in a 108-pitch grinder.
“We were 1-6 and got the 12th seed,” said Treonze. “We knew we weren’t a 12 seed. We knew we were a better team than that.”
The Argonauts started just one senior, center fielder Ryan Parisi, and were returning to the scene of a 6-0 loss to Ridge in the 2022 final in which Byrne tossed a breezy two-hitter. “We weren’t coming back here to lose again,” said Treonze, who relied mainly on a trio of off-speed pitches – curveball, slider, changeup – to keep Ridge at bay. “We came back determined. I think we had to feel that losing feeling last year.”
Ridge had entered the game off an impressive win over Non-Public powerhouse Seton Hall Prep and was rolling along on a 14-game winning streak. It, in fact, had already avenged its only two losses, to Hunterdon Central and Bridgewater-Raritan. And with Byrne attempting to become the first starting pitcher to win two SCT titles since Immaculata’s Casey Cahill in 1999-2000, prospects were not great for Rutgers Prep.
But Treonze offered Rutgers Prep a chance, if he could just pitch to the back of his baseball card. The 5-10, 205-pound Hillsborough resident did even more, considering the opponent. It was his fourth shutout of the season and it lowered his ERA to a paltry 0.20. He’s permitted one earned run in 35 innings to go with 64 strikeouts and just six walks.
“Max has been doing this all year,” said 27-year Rutgers Prep coach Larry Santowasso. “He’s one of the best pitchers in New Jersey. I’m so proud of him. This is one of the best feelings I’ve had as a coach.”
That one big run that Rutgers Prep produced was the result of aggressive design by Santowasso and the ability of the potent Argonauts top half of the batting order to deliver the goods.
Lefty-hitting Ethan Nepomuceno led off the game against Byrne and pulled his second pitch deep into the right field corner for an eye-opening double. “He threw me a fastball on the outside corner on the first pitch and then he came back with it again on the second pitch,” said Nepomuceno. “I recognized it.”
Evan Laub then dropped a pretty bunt single down the left side as Nepomuceno raced to third base. In stepped the dangerous Andrew Parisi, who hit 11 home runs and drove in 54 runs as a freshman in 2022. He entered Tuesday batting .543. Parisi didn’t wait patiently to see what Byrne had to offer. He jumped on the first pitch and singled through the middle to score Nepomuceno from third with the game’s first – and only – run.
“All week, coach had the pitching machine on high and moved it in on the infield grass,” said Parisi. “We definitely wanted to jump on his fastball early in the count.”
That early aggression paid off and delivered the only run Rutgers Prep would need. Byrne, as you would expect, made his own adjustment to the Argonauts approach and started leaning on his own reliable off-speed stuff. He retired the next three batters in order and would permit just three base runners the rest of the game.
Rutgers Prep did threaten in the sixth when Fronio and Cody Rullo singled with one out, but Byrne got out of that threat when the Red Devils turned a pretty 6-4-3 double play.
Treonze had to extricate himself a few times from Ridge rallies and his main hitting concern turned out to be Byrne.
Nick Rossi singled with one out in the bottom of the first and reached third on Julian Kielb’s two-out single to right field. But Treonze got Luke Somelofske to fly out to right to end the inning.
Byrne doubled hard to right-center field with one out in the second but stayed right there as Treonze struck out the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to end the threat and start a string of retiring 12 straight Ridge batters. The only ball hit in anger was Bryne’s shot to deep right field that Jackman barely chased down for the first out of the fifth.
Rossi singled with one out in the sixth to briefly break Treonze’s hold over the Red Devils’ offense, but nothing came of it. Ridge’s threat in the seventh, however, was very real and nearly decisive.
Ezra Sadowski was in an 0-2 hole with one out and the Red Devils barely clinging to life when he slashed a shot past Nepomuceno at third and down the left field line for a double. This has been Ridge’s M.O. all season. Give the Red Devils life and they execute.
Up stepped the always determined Byrne and he ripped Treonze’s first pitch hard into right field. Perhaps too hard. Jackman caught the ball on a single bounce and fired in to Fronio.
“We were playing a scrimmage in Florida in March and we had the exact same play,” said Fronio. “But I rushed the relay and air mailed it to the backstop. This time I set my feet, pivoted and threw.”
The speedy Latourette had replaced Byrne on second base and got a good jump. With Treonze still dealing, there was no question the runner had to be sent. It could be the Red Devils’ only shot at tying it up. But as Latourette rounded third, you could see a good throw may get him. Fronio made sure and delivered a dart to catcher Parisi who applied the tag for the second out.
Andrew Reynolds, to his credit, worked Treonze to 3-2 with the tying run on first base, but he swung through the next pitch and the most unlikely celebration was on.
The 6-4, 210-pound lefty Fronio boasts a high-80s fastball and is already committed to Maryland, so many thought he’d get the start over Treonze. Fronio had absorbed the loss in last year’s final. “I left myself open to second guessing,” said Santowasso. Maybe not.
But Treonze had a better take.
“You know what’s funny?” asked Treonze. “That (relay) was the only strike Zach threw all night and it was perfect.”
Santowasso and his young team were left wanting after the 2022 final, feeling like they hadn’t handled adversity as well as they could have.
“We were upset with how we played last year,” said Santowasso. “We watched the game on film and we didn’t like our body language. We didn’t like how we reacted to bad moments.”
Santowasso pointed to two big moments that defined this 2023 version of the Argonauts.
“Ethan’s leadoff double and Joey Dwek’s at bat in the second showed we would not be intimidated,” said Santowasso. Dwek led off the second against Byrne with a grueling 10-pitch at bat that ended with a deep fly out to center field.
That said, both Santowasso and his team believed the lessons of 2022 turned 2023 into a special SCT ending.
“I don’t think we would be here if not for last year,” said Santowasso. Parisi put it another way, “We are the only ones who believed we were supposed to be here.”
NOTES: Byrne has struck out 67 and walked 13 in 42.1 innings and boasts a 0.66 ERA. Santowasso recognized the challenge his team faced and addressed it directly.
… “We had Connor at 1.62 strikeouts per inning,” said Santowasso. “I told the kids, if you get two strikes on you, you are going to strike out. He’s going to get you chasing a slider or fool you and overpower you with a fastball.” Hence, Rutgers Prep’s strategy to attack Byrne early in the count. Realistically, that strategy proved profitable for one inning, but, because of Treonze’s performance, it was enough.
… Parisi on Treonze: “Dude, he was dealing with his curveball, slider and changeup.”
… Santowasso on the two teams’ pitchers: “These two teams have the four best pitchers in the county.” He was referring to the Argonauts, Treonze and Fronio and Ridge’s Byrne and Brendan Callahan.
… While Treonze says he typically throws about 60 percent breaking balls in a game, we contend that number was more like 75-80 percent on Tuesday night.
… Rutgers Prep defeated Watchung Hills, 8-0, Franklin, 5-4, Somerville, 3-2, and Bridgewater-Raritan, 4-3, to reach the final. Ridge edged Bernards, 1-0, in Byrne’s perfect game in the quarterfinals, then defeated Pingry, 6-2, in the semifinals.
… Home plate umpire Mike Wendroff had quite a two-day run. On Monday, he had the plate for Immaculata’s 1-0, nine-inning walk-off victory over Somerville. That’s two runs over 16 innings for Mike and a lot of strikes