BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Gov, Livingston baseball team scored six times in the bottom of the 6th inning for an 8-5 come from behind victory over Bernards in the semi-finals of the Central Jersey, Group II sectional playoffs yesterday afternoon in Berkeley Heights.
Trailing 4-2, the opportunistic Highlanders took advantage of four walks and two hit batters to take a 5-4 lead before Tyler McCulloch (1-3,2RBI) and Stephen Reid (2-3,2RBI) followed with run scoring hits capping the comeback. Nick Cocchia (2 2/3,3,1ER,6K) who came on in relief to win his 8th game of the season worked out of bases loaded jam in the seventh to nail down Gov. Livingston’s 25th win of the season sending his team into the championship game.
"You win 25 games, you are a pretty good team, you win various ways -- today we won ugly," said Gov. Livingston head coach Chris Roof. " But we won and that's all that matters at the end of the day."
The No. 1 seeded Highlanders (25-3), who recorded their second consecutive dramatic late inning playoff win, will now face the second seed South Plainfield Tigers(19-10) on Friday in Berkeley Heights, first pitch 4 p.m.
Senior right hander Sean Savage (5-0) took the mound for the Highlanders looking for his second post season win after dominating Holmdel to open the states last Tuesday. The Mountaineers countered with senior righty Daniel Ball (4-2) who was coming off a 6-0 shutout playoff victory over North Plainfield in a game where he gave up only one hit and struck out 14.
The Highlanders game plan was to drive the hard throwing Ball's pitch count up and try to get into the Mountaineer bullpen and have Savage go as long as he could before bringing in ace Cocchia to close out the game.
"The kid [Ball] was good. -- We knew getting into the bullpen, we'd have a better chance of winning," said Roof.
That’s exactly how the game played out as Ball, a Gettysburg College commit, left the game after walking the two first batters of the 6th inning having thrown 100 pitches. Savage did his part pitching 4 1/3 solid innings giving up only two earned runs on five hits before giving way to Cocchia.
"Sean [Savage] kept us in there," said Roof. "I went to Nicky [Cocchia] because we had to win or there was no Championship."
Gov. Livingston's patience at the plate paid off as they scored six times against the Bernards bullpen and despite loading the bases in the 7th, Cocchia got the job done by striking out the last two batters of the game.
After two scoreless innings by both teams, the Mountaineers got on the board in the third after a two out error kept the inning alive. Leadoff hitter Phil Mahlik (2-3,3R ) doubled down the right field line and Timmy Lallis (3-4,3 RBI) followed with a double of his own putting Bernards up 2 -0. Gov. Livingston came right back in the bottom half of the inning after Ball issued 2 one out walks Reid drove a pitch over Lallis' head in center field for a two run double. Ball got the next hitter on a strikeout and was very fortunate to escape further damage as Drew Compton drove a liner deep into right field that was corralled by a leaping Kyle Levine to end the inning.
Ball (2-4,2b) got things going for the Mountaineers in the next inning as he led off with a double, was sacrificed over to second, and came around to score on a Levine single to put the Mountaineers back on top 3-2.
The Mountaineers tacked on another run in the 5th when Mahlik took a Savage offering deep into to center for his second double of the game. Savage was relieved at this point by Cocchia who's first pitch was slapped into center field by Lallis for an RBI single. Cocchia gave up another hit putting runners on the corners but managed to fan the next two hitters to keep the Highlanders within two runs.
Meanwhile despite hitting several hard shots, the Highlanders could not get anything going against Ball as he held them to just two hits over the first five innings of play.
Now facing a similar situation as they did on Tuesday against Raritan, trailing in the late innings, the Highlanders were in desperate need of baserunners. Power hitter Reid gave the Highlanders exactly what they needed as he stayed disciplined at the plate and worked a walk to lead off the 6th. Cleanup hitter Dan Baroff then walked on four straight pitches and Ball was done for the day as his pitch count stood at 100.
"Us coming back against Cranford -- beating Raritan, -- we came back to fight," said Roof. These dramatic finishes really helped these kids, said Roof. "Mental toughness -- that's what it comes down to. -- They feel like their confident, they can do it."
Mountaineer reliever Robbie Holmes quickly got ahead of Compton 0-2 but Compton stayed patient and on a 3-2 pitch was hit loading the bases. The game's momentum had clearly shifted and the pressure of the moment got the best of Bernards as Holmes walked Cocchia, and despite getting ahead of DJ Gonnelli 0-2, plunked him, which produced the tying runs for the Highlanders.
Bernards Coach Falzarano brought his infield in with the bases loaded and reliever Jack Evleth got Will Jennings to ground a ball to SS Mahlik who cut the runner down at the plate for a force out. Evleth quickly got ahead of Vin Doren 0-2, but like his teammates, veteran Doren stayed disciplined and worked a walk which forced in the go head run. McCulloch (1-3,2RBI) then broke the game open as he singled into right field bringing home two more runs. Evleth got a tough second out when dangerous Dan Serretti (1-3) flew out to center, but Reid picked up another run with an RBI single to give the Highlanders an 8-4 lead.
However, now down by four the Mountaineers showed no quit as they loaded the bases against Cocchia with one out in the top of the 7th inning. Ball who was batting cleanup was completely fooled by Cocchia as he took three pitches looking for strikes for the innings second out. Cocchia uncharacteristically walked the next hitter forcing in a run, but the Highlanders number one came back strong as he punched out Levine on three pitches to seal the victory.
Gov. Livingston last won the Central Jersey Group II state sectional title when they defeated Robbinsville 5-3 in 2015. That 2015 team went on to capture the schools third overall Group II state championship. In their quest for their fourth overall championship, the Highlanders must first get by a very good South Plainfield team on Friday. This season the Tigers have combined very strong pitching with a mistake free defense to grind out 19 wins while playing a very competitive schedule. It's all hands on deck for the Highlander pitching staff that unfortunately will not be able to use Cocchia who maxed out on his pitch count against Bernards. Look for seniors Vin Doren, Cole Schneider and Savage all to be ready to go. South Plainfield will not be able to pitch their ace Jean Sapini who went 8 innings (113 pitches) on Tuesday in the Tigers 2-1 win over Voorhees. The Tigers will most likely go with sophomore Chris Shine who closed out the last inning of the Voorhees game.