BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Gov. Livingston's senior captain Dan Baroff cleared the bases with a game winning two out double in the bottom of the seventh inning propelling the Highlanders past a stunned South Plainfield team to capture the Central Jersey Group II sectional championship,Friday afternoon in Berkeley Heights.
The Highlander “comeback kids” pulled out another remarkable late inning win as they defeated South Plainfield 6-5 for their 26th win of the season. It was the third straight playoff game that the Highlanders found themselves behind in the sixth inning or later, only to snatch a late inning dramatic win away from a shocked opponent. Vin Doren (5 1/3,8H,3ER,4K) and Sean Savage (1 2/3,1H,0ER,2K) both turned in gutsy mound performances battling not only the Tigers but the umpires as well, keeping their team within striking distance,which set the stage for Baroff’s late game heroics.
"It was a big moment, I was taking a pitch at a time," said Baroff. He fouled the first ball and sat back and hit the other way. -- "It means everything. I wanted to carry the team as a captain. It's an amazing feeling."
Gov. Livingston will now face Manasquan in the semis of the overall Group II state championship playoffs on Tuesday at Rowan University, in Glassboro.
The visiting South Plainfield Tigers (19-11), who all season have relied on outstanding pitching, solid defense, and a knack for manufacturing runs had all three on prominent display throughout yesterday's game. The scrappy Tigers got things going against Highlander starter Doren (6-0) playing small ball right from the start to take an early 1-0 lead . Connor Adams (3-4) led off the game with an infield hit and was bunted over to second and into scoring position. Doren then got the next two hitters but opposing pitcher Billy Keane slapped a ball the opposite way for an RBI single for a 1-0 Tiger lead.
The Highlanders quickly responded against Keane (6 2/3,11H,5ER,3K) in the home half of the first as Dan Serretti (1-3, 3b) drove a ball to the base of the centerfield fence for a triple scoring Ty McCulloch who had reached on an error by Keane. Stephen Reid (3-4,1RBI) then banged a hard RBI single to left as Gov. Livingston took a 2-1 lead. It looked like the Highlanders had Keane rattled as cleanup hitter Baroff (2-5,3RBI) was looking at a 3-0 count, but after throwing a strike Keane got Baroff to ground into an inning ending double play.
South Plainfield regained the lead in the third on a long two run homer from Dylan O’Connor(2-4,HR). Ryan Stanczak grounded a one out base hit into left field before O’Connor took an 0-2 offering from Doren that had too much of the plate deep over the left field fence to give the Tigers the lead back at 3-2.
The score remained 3-2 as starters Doren and Keane worked in and out of trouble over the next three innings with both inducing double play balls to end minor threats. However, the game took a bizarre turn in the top of the sixth as the umpires made a controversial ruling on what appeared to be a routine fly ball out to open the inning.
Roberto Gonzalez took Doren's first offering and hit a lazy fly ball to Highlander left fielder McCulloch, who appeared to make the catch, but while transferring the ball to his throwing hand the ball dropped to the ground. Gonzalez who was on his way back to the dugout running behind the pitchers mound ran back to second base when his dugout screamed to him that the ball was dropped. With Gonzalez now standing on second base the umpires ruled that McCulloch did not make the catch and Gonzalez remained on second. This brought Highlander Coach Chris Roof out out of his dugout to protest the call but after pleading his case the ruling stood and the Tigers looked to take advantage of this unexpected gift.
Doren and the Highlanders were now expecting the Tigers to move Gonzalez over to third with a sacrifice bunt but Tiger Coach Anthony Guida had TJ Massaro swing away. Massaro managed to move Gonzalez over on a ground out. After throwing three straight balls to big Jean Sapini, Doren had him on the ropes as looked at two curve ball strikes. However, Doren missed with a third breaking ball walking Sapini putting runners on the corners still with one out.
Gov. Livingston head coach Chris Roof knew Doren was the right choice to pitch this championship game. "Vinny pitched a complete game in the County Final -- he is the toughest kid we have on the team," said Roof. -- "He gritted it out and handed it off to Sean, another captain who did a great job and got some big outs," said Roof.
Doren's trust in his team got him through pressure situations with ease. "I know our offense always does work, especially late in the game," said Doren. "I have so much confidence in our offense and everybody's trust in our offense and we make plays in the field."
Savage (6-0), who has pitched brilliantly for the Highlanders this season as both a starter and a reliever, replaced a tiring Doren on the mound as the Highlanders looked to a fresh arm to avoid a big Tiger inning.
Savage also handles the pressure due to his confidence in the team. "They have done a great job all year," said Savage. "Dan [Baroff] does an outstanding job on the plate -- he has been catching me since I have been 8 years old. I have to give credit to them [S. Plainfield], they had a few good squeezes down but I think we did a great job."
Coach Guida and the Tigers then unleashed a bunting barrage that not only displayed the beauty of playing strategic baseball,but appeared to bury the Highlanders emotionally. First, Guida called for Mikey Marrero to lay down a squeeze and Marrero dropped a perfect bunt up the first base line scoring the runner from third base. Guida then had leadoff man Adams follow with a bunt, this time up the third base line for a hit which reloaded the bases. Once again, Guida flashed the bunt sign and Jared Marks laid down another perfect scoring a run as Savage played the ball to first for the second out of the inning. The Tigers had now scored three runs on three consecutive bunts and led 5-2 before Savage struck out Stanczak to end the inning.
"They bundt all the time," said Gov. Livingston infield coach Dan Mondelli. "We took it away a lot because they wanted to do more. --When they had the opportunity, they did a good job with it."
Time was running out on the reeling Highlanders as they were searching to find an answer for lefty Keane.They got a lift when they opened the sixth with back to back singles by Reid and Baroff, but Keane got Drew Compton to hit a sharp ground ball to short which the Tiger infield turned into a double play. Once again, it looked like the Highlanders were deflated, but senior Nick Cocchia (2-3, 1RBI) picked his team up with a two out base hit which scored Reid who advanced to third on the double play ball.The inning ended with DJ Gonnelli driving a ball up against the left field wall but Adams made the catch which kept the Tigers on top 5-3 after six innings.
Savage made quick work of the Tigers in the top of the inning and now it was do or die time for the Highlanders.
Guida sent Keane back out to locked down the game for the Tigers with Keane now having thrown 92 pitches through the first six innings of play. Keane had not pitched since 5/24 when he pitched a complete game two hit 72 pitch 2-1 win against Matawan appeared to have plenty left.
It was now Keane’s game to win or lose as Guida did not have anyone warming up as Will Jennings (2-3) stepped in with the Highlanders season on the line. Jennings gave the Highlanders exactly what they needed when he got on base with a line single to center. Junior Jack Pedini was called upon to pinch hit and delivered in a huge way when he ripped Keane’s first pitch into left field putting runners on first and second. Now it was Coach Roof who called for a bunt and McCulloch did his job as both runners advanced into scoring position.
Still no movement in the South Plainfield bullpen as Guida choose to intentionally walk Serretti to load the bases to set up the force or potential double play but also put the potential winning run on base. Keane now had to face Reid who had ripped him for three base hits, but to his credit he got the Highlanders best clutch hitter and team RBI leader to pop up to second base.
Baroff who will continue his education and baseball career at Franklin and Marshall next year had the game, the season, and his fellow seniors fate in his hands. Baroff delivered in a big way as he gapped an opposite field drive to the left center field fence which left no doubt the Highlanders were going to tie the game as Jennings and pinch runner Jace Tweeten easily scored. However it was Serretti who was given the intentional pass who never stopped running as he came around third and slid head first into home scoring the winning run and setting off a wild celebration before possibly the largest crowd to ever see a baseball game up on the "Hill".
Gov. Livingston baseball will be seeking their fourth overall state championship when they meet a Manasquan in the final round of the Group II tourney. Manasquan also won their sectional championship in dramatic fashion scoring a two out run in the bottom of the last inning for a 1-0 win over West Deptford. The Warriors captured their first sectional title in 31 years, while the Highlanders return to overall group championship play after winning it all in 2015.
The game will feature a great pitching matchup of powerful lefties as Highlander ace Nick Cocchia (8-0) will face hard throwing Notre Dame bound Tom Sheehan (5-2). Sheehan has struck out 80 batters in 47 innings of work while Cocchia has whiffed 70 in 48 innings and both can be counted on going deep into the game.
Cocchia is ready for Tuesday. "I've been ready for this since the start of the season," said Cocchia. "Our team with our pitching staff, it's incredible, we are so deep in the pitching staff, I don't think anybody can stop us at this point."
The Highlanders and the Warriors will both have their entire pitching staffs available for Tuesday's game. The winner of this game will travel to Toms River on June 10th to play for the NJSIAA Group II title.
Video Credit: John Haddad