BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- On a day when starting pitcher Jack Love admitted to having less than his best stuff, the Ridge baseball team backed him up with a pair of home runs, as the Red Devils erased an early deficit and went on to a 6-2 victory over Elizabeth in the quarterfinal round of the Section 2, Group 4 state tournament on Friday.
Ridge will host Bridgewater-Raritan in the section semifinal Tuesday afternoon, with the winner moving on to meet either Scotch Plains-Fanwood or Westfield for the section championship next Friday.
Freshman right fielder Jayden Hylton and senior third baseman/pitcher Brendan Bell each hit home runs for Ridge, and Love pitched shutout ball for 5 1/3 innings after being nicked for two first-inning runs by Elizabeth before Bell came in to pitch and got the last two outs of the game.
The second batter of the game, Brendan Vasquez, hit a solo home run off Love. Then, with two out, Elizabeth strung together three singles to score another run for a 2-0 lead before Ridge came to bat for the first time.
"I didn't have good stuff. Neither my change-up or my curve were working the way they usually do," said Love, a senior right-hander. "After we fell behind, I knew I had to battle the rest of the game. I had to take it one inning at a time, but I was able to make big pitches when I needed to."
Championship-caliber teams answer opposing salvos quickly, and, in the bottom of the second, Ridge scored three runs to take the lead for good. Greg Bozzo singled to right-center to lead off the second inning, and Hylton followed with a long home run to left that boasted gaudy exit velocity to tie the game, 2-2. The home run came on an 0-2 pitch.
"You just can't make a mistake pitching to Jayden," said Ridge head coach Tom Blackwell. "He really has power to spare. We always tell the kids that the at-bat is never over when you get behind in the count. I think it makes them focus more."
With one out in the second inning, Cooper Bobowicz singled, stole second, took third on a ball-four wild pitch to Jason Arrigo and scored when Lukas Goodman was safe at first on a potential double-play ball to short when he beat the relay after Arrigo was forced at second. That gave the Red Devils a 3-2 lead, and they built that lead to 5-2 with two more runs in the third.
Bobby Parisi led off with a single in the third inning and stole second base. Hylton drew a one-out walk, Bobowicz walked with two out to load the bases, and Arrigo lined a two-out, two-run single to left field to extend the lead to 5-2.
Arrigo, Ridge's shortstop, and second baseman Chris Parker sparkled up the middle defensively, the most critical highlight being their 6-4-3 double play to get Love out of a first-and-third jam in the fifth inning.
"They have been outstanding lately," Blackwell said of his middle infielders. "And Jack gave us all he had today. I have seen him better, but when you give up only two runs to a scrappy team like Elizabeth and pitch into the seventh inning, you can't ask for more."
Love pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowed six hits, walked one and struck out three. Bell, who hit a solo home run to right field in the bottom of the sixth inning, came in with one out in the seventh to relieve Love. Bell struck out a pinch-hitter and then got Elizabeth's leadoff batter on a fly to right to end the game.
Ridge now has three home runs in its first two state tournament games. In addition to the circuit clouts by Hylton and Bell on Friday, Bozzo had a home run in Tuesday's first-round victory over Piscataway.
Elizabeth (8-21) 200 000 0 -- 2 6 1
Ridge (17-9) 032 001 x -- 6 7 0
WP-Love (4-3, 0.78)
HR-(E) Vasquez; (R) Hylton, Bell