BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Gov. Livingston baseball team staged a dramatic 7th inning comeback to defeat Raritan 5-4 after the visiting Rockets stunned the Highlanders by scoring three times with two outs in the top half of the inning to take a 4-3 lead. Facing a season ending loss the Highlanders loaded the bases before Dan Serretti (2-4,3 RBI) set off a wild celebration as he drilled the first pitch he saw deep into the right field corner clearing the bases for the game winning runs. Having averted a devastating loss, the No. 1 seeded Highlanders advance to the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group II playoffs and now will play the winner between 4th seed Monmouth and 5th seed Bernards on Tuesday, May 30 in Berkeley Heights.
The game featured an interesting pitching matchup between the Highlanders veteran lefty ace Nick Cocchia (7-0) and Raritan’s talented junior Zachary Johnston (4-1). Cocchia (6 1/3,5 H,1 ER, 9 K) and reliever Vin Doren (2/3, 0 ER,1K) along with Johnston (6, 6 H,2 ER,4 K) all pitched magnificently but unfortunately the game was not decided on the mound but rather in the field as the game unfolded in the last inning.
The contest opened up with Raritan’s Tyler Bruno who was 3 for 3 on the day lining a single to right field. He was then moved into scoring position as the next batter grounded out providing the Rockets with an early scoring opportunity. Cocchia then went to work as he punched out the Rockets 3 and 4 to end the inning.
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Tyler McCulloch (2-3, 2b) led off the game for the Highlanders by smacking a double down the left field line. After he was moved over to third on a ground out, Johnston got a huge strikeout for the second out. It looked like Johnston was going to get out of the inning when he got an 0-2 count on cleanup hitter Dan Baroff(1-3,1RBI), but Baroff hung tough and lined a base hit just over the head of second baseman Dan Vanmeerbeke's head for the games first run.
Gov. Livingston picked up another run in the third inning as Serretti reached on a two base error and scored on a Stephen Reid (1-3,1RBI) single to put the Highlanders up 2-0.
Johnston again was the victim of some sloppy defensive play in the fifth as the Highlanders were able to score another unearned run. McCulloch worked a walk with two outs and Serretti roped a double into the right field. As the throw from the outfield was mishandled in the infield, McCulloch raced home from third scoring on a close plate at the plate.
Trailing 3-0 and desperate to get something going against Cocchia, Jake Tennant led off the sixth inning by dropping a beautiful bunt down the third base line for a hit. The next batter then hit a hard ball up the middle that clipped Cocchia on the leg for an infield hit putting runners on first and second. With a potential bunting situation at hand Rocket Kyle Lamattina first showed bunt and then swung away missing the second pitch. Raritan Coach Struble guessed right as the Highlander defense was in motion Lamattina swung away and grounded a ball through the infield as SS Serretti was moving to cover third base on a potential bunt. Now with the bases full and no outs Cocchia faced his biggest challenge of the game. An unfazed Cocchia then struck out the next batter before the Rockets scored their first run on a ground ball out to first baseman DJ Gonnelli. He then fanned the next hitter on four pitches to end the threat holding Raritan to just one run.
The seventh inning brought about moments of exhilaration and agony for both teams as Gov. Livingston was clinging to a 3-1 lead.
Cocchia and the Highlanders needing just three outs to move on to the semifinals. He struck out the first batter of the inning for his 9th strikeout of the game but unfortunately he was done for the day as he had reached his allotted pitch count.
Coach Roof confidently called on senior righty starter Vin Doren (6-0) to close out the game. Tyler Bruno jumped on Doren's first pitch and hit a playable ball to centerfield which was misplayed into a double. Doren then clipped the next batter putting runners on first and second. A ground out to first had Gov. Livingston just one out away however the game was about to take an ugly turn for the Highlanders. Doren induced clean up hitter Matt Birdsall to hit a ground ball which seemingly appeared to be the third out of the inning but an errant throw allowed two runs to score and the game was tied at three as Birdsall advanced to second. The Highlanders defensive problems continued as Lamattina grounded a ball into the outfield that did not draw a throw as Birdsall came across with the lead run putting the Rockets up 4-3. Doren then struck out the next hitter on three pitches.
The clearly stunned Highlanders were now facing a do or die situation as Johnston came out to try seal the Rocket upset of the No. 1 seed. Will Jennings led of the inning by reaching on an error and the Highlanders got the base runner they desperately needed. Sophomore Ryan Davey who entered his first varsity game in the top of the inning as a defensive replacement was now called upon to bunt Jennings over to second and into scoring position. Davey showed no signs of pressure in his first varsity at bat as he laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt up the first base line and somehow was able to slip by first baseman Tennant without getting tagged as he was called safe at first.
With runners on first and second it was Johnston's game to win or lose as Raritan had no one warming up in the bullpen. Johnston now had to deal with the top of the Highlander lineup as both teams seasons were on the line. Lead off hitter McCulloch hit a high chopper to short but the ball was not played across to first as an indecisive defender was distracted by Jennings who was making his way to third. Johnston was now not only in a jam but his pitch count was now over 100 which meant next hitter Serretti would most likely be his last batter. Johnston would not have to worry about his pitch count as Serretti took his first offering and hit a one hopper off the right field fence for a game winning bases clearing double bringing Gov. Livingston's season back to life.
The victory was the 24th of the season for Gov. Livingston (24-3) and oddly enough their only late inning come from behind win this season. The Highlanders will be back in action on Tuesday at home in their semi final matchup, opponent tbd.