Malik Little did damage at the plate and on the mound in Wednesday’s playoff games.
Hustle Baseball struck the first blow in the Diamond Nation High School Fall League playoffs on Wednesday night when it won two straight games to knock two teams from the 12-team playoff field.
The victories in the single-elimination tournament vaulted the Essex County program into Wednesday’s semifinals. Hustle Baseball will play the survivor of Nos. 1, 8 and 9 seeds. Thursday night’s playoff quarterfinals were rained out and Monday’s initial rescheduled date was switched to Tuesday due to high winds on Monday.
The Fall League tournament concludes on Wednesday night with the semifinals and championship game.
Fifth-seeded Hustle baseball used excellent pitching and timely hitting to defeat 12th-seeded In The Zone 2, 9-1, in the first round and the fourth-seeded D1 Renegades, 6-1, in the nightcap of the playoff twinbill.
Hustle Baseball had won four games in a row to close the regular season on a roll, but it’s two previous wins were just the prior night, meaning coach Matt Rago’s club would have to survive a four-games in two days stretch to advance in the playoffs. Hustle Baseball’s pitching staff made that chore a bit easier by pitching back-to-back one-hitters on Wednesday night.
“The kids are playing really well,” said Rago, an assistant coach at Gov. Livingston and a middle school teacher in Bridgewater. “We’ve made the right adjustments at practice and we’re starting to click a bit. Our offensive approach is better and our pitchers are throwing strikes and getting ahead in counts.”
Jonathan Rodriguez came through in a big way, considering Hustle Baseball’s potential dilemma with pitching. The righthander pitched a five-inning complete game one-hitter, striking out 11, walking two and hitting a batter. Hustle closed out the eight-run mercy rule victory when Joey Bernardo raced home with the decisive run in the bottom of the fifth on a wild pitch.
“We had four games in two days and knew we would be struggling to string some arms together,” said Rago. “Jonathan throwing that complete game made things so much easier. That was huge.”
Hustle’s No. 3 hitter Malik Little, he of the lethal bat, went 3-for-3 and scored three runs and Bernardo was 2-for-3 to spearhead the Fairfield, N.J.-based program.
The second game carried some additional meaning for Hustle Baseball as D1 Baseball had knocked them off, 8-3, back on Sept. 15. “We didn’t forget that. Trust me,” said Rago. “They got into us pretty good that game.”
Bernardo got the start and limited the Renegades to one run on one hit over five innings, struck out four and walked three. Little walked two batters in his lone inning, the sixth, but struck out two, including the final out of the game.
“We did a great job of swinging the bats in that one,” said Rago.
Bernardo complemented his pitching effort by going 3-for-3 at the plate, driving in two runs and scoring a run. Little was 1-for-3, drove in a run and scored a run.
“Ty Fredo played a great game in the infield, too,” said Rago. “We had a player in quarantine and Ty came in and did a great job for us.” Fredo also drew a pair of walks and scored a run.
“That was a really good game,” said Rago. “We stole a bunch of bases in both games and we executed a nice relay to get an out at home plate (against the Renegades).”
The top-seeded Buck County Generals await the winner of Monday’s early game that pits the No. 9 seed vs. the No. 8 seed. Should the seeds hold and the Generals get through, they’ll be facing a Hustle Baseball squad they defeated, 5-0, on Oct. 6.
“The Bucks swing the bats well and they had three D1 pitchers when we saw them,” said Rago. If it’s them we’re certainly going to have get ourselves ready to go.”
FALL LEAGUE PLAYOFFS SCHEDULE
Tuesday, Nov. 3
SECOND ROUND – 6 p.m.
(8) FBA Jays 18U vs. (9) Morris County Cubs Navy
(7) FBA Jays vs. (10) Hillsborough Jr.
(6) In The Zone 1 vs. (11) Morris County Cubs White
QUARTERFINALS – 8 P.M.
(1) Bucks County Generals vs. 8/9 winner.
(2) Hillsborough Sr. vs. 7/10 winner.
(3) Whitehouse Post 284 vs. 6/11 winner.
Wednesday, Nov. 4
SEMIFINALS – 6 p.m.
(5) Hustle Baseball Academy vs. 1/8/9 winner, Field 1
2/7/10 winner vs. 3/6/11 winner, Field 4
CHAMPIONSHIP – 8 P.M. – Field 1