Something has to give when two strong teams are throwing haymakers at each other for seven innings.
West Morris and visiting Ridge were protecting the front of their pitching rotations with respective county tournament games ahead this weekend and thus were forced to become creative.
“Ridge is a good team but they gave us a few runs and we found a way,” said fourth-year West Morris coach Tom Reindel. “It was a great game.”
West Morris did find a way. It manufactured three runs in the fifth inning to take a three-run lead before closer Braden Willsey got the last five outs to preserve a 7-5 nailbiter that enabled the Wolfpack to improve to 10-1.
Ridge, which faces Watchung Hills on Saturday afternoon in the first round of the Somerset County Tournament, fell to 6-4. Five Red Devils pitchers issued nine walks and hit two batters as coach Tom Blackwell, like Reindel, attempted to piece together a non-conference win.
West Morris started its ace Connor Staine with the intent to limit him to 30 or so pitches so he’d be a go on Friday against Mount Olive in the second round of the Morris County Tournament. Complicating decision-making for Reindel, was the prospect of another MCT game on Saturday, a potential quarterfinal game.
The bottom of the fifth would be a unique one.
Anthony Grauso and Matt Gluck drew walks around a Nick Calabrese single to load the bases with no outs for West Morris. Aidan Healy drew a walk, too, to force home Grauso with the go-ahead run. Kevin Kennedy made it a 5-3 lead when he beat out a slow bouncer for an infield hit. The final run of the inning would come home in the middle of a play you just don’t see very often.
Staine came to the plate with the bases-loaded and still no outs and promptly hit a hard bouncer to shortstop. Jason Arrigo fielded it and fired to second baseman Chris Parker for the first out. Parker spun and fired to Jayden Hylton at first base for a double play. But the play was not complete.
Gluck had already scored from third base on the double play to extend West Morris’ lead to 6-3. But Healy tried to catch Ridge napping as he kept charging from second base, around third and toward home. Hylton, however, alertly fired home to catch Healy for the third out.
The triple play kept Ridge above water and it would rally one more time.
Bobby Parisi drew a leadoff walk and Greg Bozzo followed with a single to right field to put Ridge in business in the sixth. Reliever Jack Yeatts, who had been cruising in relief of Staine, struck out the next batter before Reindel pulled him due to a strict pitch count. Willsey got the second out but Jack Love jumped on a 3-2 fastball and drove it over first base for a two-run double. Suddenly Ridge had crept back to within a run at 6-5.
Willsey, however, struck out the next batter to end the threat and, with a West Morris insurance run added via an error in the bottom of the inning, comfortably retired Ridge in order in the seventh.
“Willsey has done that all season,” said Reindel. “That was his third save.”
It was Bozzo who staked Ridge to a 3-0 lead in the top of the third inning when he unloaded a two-out, three-run double to right-center field. Bozzo tried to stretch the double into three bases but a perfect relay throw from second baseman James Turkus beat him by 10 feet. Waiting to apply the tag with a smile was Bozzo’s Diamond Jacks teammate Gluck.
West Morris answered with three runs of its own in the bottom of the third. Healy ripped a double off the left field fence that chased Grauso and Gluck home. Gluck scored from first but drew a throw to the plate. The subsequent return throw to third attempting to get Healy got away, allowing him to score the tying run.
Ridge actually outhit West Morris 7-4 but the walks and a couple misplays caught up with the Red Devils. Conversely, West Morris was clean defensively and added a couple gems to go along with it.
“We pride ourselves on our defense,” said Healy, who was especially slick at shortstop. “We trust each other. Our pitchers trust the defense and the defense trusts our pitchers. We’ve been playing together since fourth grade. We play for one another. We have each other’s back.”
The West Morris infield was particularly air tight with Gluck at third, Turkus at second, Grauso at first and Matt Blount steady as ever behind the plate. Left fielder Nick Calabrese made a sliding grab of a sinking liner hit by Tommy Ramazotto for the first out of the seventh.
“I still haven’t seen a better third baseman than Gluck,” said Reindel. Gluck, a junior, is a three-year starter and a natural middle infielder that has taken to third base. He snared a wicked hop to rob Ramazotto in his previous at bat in the fifth.
“I pride myself on being able to play wherever coach needs me,” said Gluck. “I move to short when Aidan pitches. You have less time to react to the ball at third but you do have time to set your feet and make a throw.”
Gluck, who reached base on all four trips to the plate, certainly looked comfortable at the hot corner, about as comfortable as the Wolfpack has through 11 games.
NOTES: Four Diamond Jacks played in the game. Gluck (two HBPs, walk) and his teammate, center fielder Nick Masi (two walks) and Ridge’s catcher Bozzo (2-for-3, 3 RBI, run) and first baseman Hylton (0-for-3). … Bozzo also threw out two would-be West Morris base-stealers in the first inning, including fellow Diamond Jack Gluck.