JERSEY CITY, NJ — The Ridge baseball team, after a damaging first inning, silenced both the bats and the vociferous dugout of home standing St. Peter's Prep on Tuesday.
But the Red Devils, who had at least one runner on base in every inning, fell just short in their comeback effort as St. Peter's Prep held on for a 6-5 victory at Caven Point to advance to the Sweet 16 of the statewide Last Dance Tournament.
St. Peter's Prep scored five runs despite getting just one hit in a first inning uprising that included three walks, two hit batsmen, an error and a run-scoring balk. The Marauders, considered prohibitive favorites, escalated the bench jockeying taunts to standards that may not have been tolerated by umpires or coaching staffs in a normal, NJSIAA-sanctioned game in the spring.
But the NJSIAA is not the regulating authority for the Last Dance Tournament. Tuesday's game included three umpires--including one behind the plate, rather than a more "socially distanced" spot behind the pitcher's mound--but none of them ever made a motion to get the targeted taunts from the Marauders' dugout under control.
What did end up quelling the trash talking was a spirited Ridge comeback that was made possible by the stellar long relief work of right-hander Chris Parker. Entering the game with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the first inning, Parker ended up going 5 1/3 innings on the mound, allowing two hits, one run and one walk, while striking out five.
"Parker started to find his change-up the longer he was out there, and he had them way out in front," Ridge head coach Tom Blackwell said. "Chris had some arm issues as a junior (in 2019) or else he would have pitched more for us last year. But he threw great for us in the tournament--he got two victories in relief for us last week, and he pitched so well today."
Ridge, which had scratched out a run in the top of the first, got a run back in the third to make the score 5-2. Robbie Rutkowski drew a leadoff walk and, with one out, Brendan Bell hit a long opposite field triple over the left fielder's head. Jayden Hylton followed with a looping infield single to shortstop, but Bell had to hold third because it looked like Hylton's hump-back looper might be caught. On a first-and-third pickoff play, Bell was caught in a rundown and eventually tagged out between third base and home.
"We shot ourselves in the foot in that first inning and made a couple of outs (on the bases)," Blackwell said. "We didn't play well enough to win even though we came back."
But the comeback still spoke volumes, coming against a team whose players sounded like they might have expected to be able to wrap things up in five mercy-rule innings on a steamy early afternoon on the shimmering stadium turf.
"If they were thinking that way they would have been wrong," Blackwell said. "These guys here are competitors and always will be. They're too competitive a group to let that happen."
So, while Parker was keeping the Marauders at bay and becoming more effective with each inning he was on the mound (he retired the last nine batters he faced), and while center fielder Bobby Parisi cut down what would have been a seventh St. Peter's run with a perfect throw to home to nail a runner trying to score from second on a single, Ridge threatened each inning. In the fifth, Bell was hit by a pitch with one out, Hylton singled through the right side, and Greg Bozzo hit a first-pitch fastball over the left field fence for a home run that traveled at least 350 feet to bring the Red Devils back within a run, 6-5.
"Boz' is a great player," Blackwell said. "There's no doubt, the bigger the game, the better he'll play."
Ridge had a leadoff walk in the sixth inning, but stranded that runner. In the seventh, Bozzo reached on a one-out single, then Parisi lashed a line drive ticketed for left-center before the St. Peter's Prep shortstop leaped and caught the ball at the apex of his jump for the second out. Bozzo then stole second, putting the tying run into scoring position, but he was left standing there as the game, and Ridge's abbreviated summer season, ended with a 3-1 record.
Ridge and St. Peter's Prep, a perennial non-public school power in North Jersey, never would have met in a normal NJSIAA post-season. The Last Dance Tournament did away with all school classifications and allowed for crossover matchups that would not have otherwise occurred. The four July games that Ridge did play gave an indication of what kind of success the Red Devils might have been able to achieve in a full spring campaign had that season not been eradicated by the statewide shutdown of schools and sports in the spring due to COVID-19.
"I just told the team after the game, we joined this tournament for two main reasons," Blackwell said. "One, to win the whole thing. And, two, to full some voids our hearts and souls after (the season) was stripped from us in the spring. This is a great team and has been a great group of guys to hang out with, both at games and during our practices."