BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Will Jennings slugged a pair of two run homers and DJ Gonnelli pitched a complete game three hitter as Gov. Livingston defeated South Plainfield 11-2 in the quarter finals of the Central Jersey, Group II tournament, Thursday afternoon in Berkeley Heights.
Gov. Livingston, the No. 1 seed, raised their season record to 22-3-1, and like they have been doing all season, combined a strong pitching performance with an early offensive explosion to notch another victory.They now advance to a semifinal matchup with No. 4 seed, Metuchen.
Gov. Livingston jumped on South Plainfield starter Rob Gonzalez (1.2 IP, 8 ER) scoring 8 runs in the first two innings, with Jennings (2-3, 2HR 4RBI), Drew Compton (2-4 HR, 4 RBI), and Gonnelli (2-3 HR) all hitting balls out of the park. Gonnelli (6-0) scattered three harmless base hits over seven innings as he methodically worked through the Tiger lineup for his sixth win of the season. The Highlanders continued their season long power surge with four more home runs, to bring the team's season total to 48, the most in the state by a wide margin.
This season's quarter final matchup with red hot South Plainfield (19-10) was an intriguing one on many levels. Last season, the two teams met in the sectional championship game, with Gov. Livingston coming away with the most dramatic baseball win in school history. Trailing 5-3 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Gov. Livingston shocked South Plainfield when former Highlander catcher Dan Baroff cleared the bases with a walk off double for a 6-5 victory. This year coming back up the "Hill" with six returning starters and that gut wrenching loss still fresh in their minds, the Tigers were primed to erase that painful memory. South Plainfield confidently made the long walk up the hill having won 15 of their last 17 games.
South Plainfield coach Anthony Guida was faced with a difficult decision this week as he prepared his team not only for state tournament but also for the Tigers upcoming Middlesex Conference Tournament Championship game this weekend. Would Guida start his ace Chris Shine against the Highlanders or would he save him for the MCT championship game on Saturday? Shine (4-2, .4 ERA) a Seton Hall commit has been spectacular this season and he surely would give the Tigers the best chance of shutting down the Highlanders prolific offense. However, Guida made his choice to hold back Shine, instead going to Gonzalez, who is having a solid year. The plan was for Gonzalez to keep his team in the game with the hopes that Shine or Keane could possibly close out the back end of a tight game.
Gonnelli, fresh off his outstanding performance against Westfield in the UCT championship game confidently put down the Tigers 1-2-3 to open the game. Coach Guida sent out Gonzalez who in 20.2 innings this year was pitching to an anemic .68 era with 28 strike outs.
Switch hitting Danny Serretti (2-3, 2 2B, 3 R) led things off for the Highlanders as Gonzalez took the mound to face a lineup that now is widely recognized as one of, if not the best in New Jersey. Gonzalez quickly got ahead of the North Carolina bound short stop 0-2, before Serretti sent a line drive into the right field corner for the first of his two doubles. Drew Compton, also a switch hitter, batting from the left side brought in the game's first run as he drove in Serretti with a base hit. After Gonzalez got Stephen Reid (1-4, RBI 2B) on a strike out, Gonnelli dropped a single into center field. Tiger outfield Connor Adams scooped the ball up and threw out Compton attempting to go from first to third. Now with two outs, Gonzalez was looking like he may wiggle out of the inning down just 1-0, but Tyler McCulloch (2-3, RBI 2B) knocked in pinch runner Nick Leonardis with an opposite field double. Iona University bound Will Jennings then crushed a 2-1 fastball over the right field fence to open up a 4-0 Highlander lead before Gonzalez could close the inning.
Gonnelli sailed through a quick 10 pitch second, as the Highlanders now looked to pad their lead against Gonzalez. Andy Serretti led off the inning with a walk and was bunted into scoring position by Ryan Davey. South Plainfield coach Guida then made another interesting decision when with one out he intentionally walked Danny Serretti. Guida now had Gonzalez facing Compton, who is batting close to .500 on the season, with two runners on base. The decision to pitch to Compton didn’t work out well for South Plainfield as the Georgia Tech recruit sent a 385 foot bomb over the centerfield fence for his 10th homer of the year. A rattled Gonzalez fought back getting Reid once again on strikes but Gonnelli then unloaded his third home run of the year to make the score 8-0.
Gonnelli's homer knocked Gonzalez out of the game and Guida's decision to not pitch his ace Shine or lefty Keane loomed big as the Tigers quickly realized that any hope they had for redemption had slipped away. Austin Feltham (4.1 IP, 3 ER, 4 H) came on for Gonzalez and held the Highlanders for a couple of innings before Jennings cracked his second two run homer in the bottom of the fifth. Reid drove in another run in the sixth with a double for the Highlanders 11th run. South Plainfield scored single runs in the fourth and sixth which prevented Gov. Livingston from registering a 10 run mercy win. Hopefully South Plainfield's decision to save their ace pitchers for Saturday's MCT championship game will pay off for the Tigers when they take on Perth Amboy, looking for their first ever MCT crown.
Gov. Livingston will now look to eliminate the 17-7 Metuchen Bulldogs who took out Del Val 2-1 by scoring two sixth inning runs in their quarter final game. Senior Matt Volpe went the distance for the win and will most likely get the call against the Highlanders. Will Hornich and Gavin Abrams will be first out of the pen for the Bulldogs. Jay Harry (.474) the Bulldogs leading hitter, got the big hit against Del Val when with two outs he doubled in the winning runs. Volpe (.381) leads the team with three homers this season.
Coach Chris Roof will have his entire pitching staff ready to go against Metuchen, with senior Liam Hulburt (6-0) expected to get the start. The Highlander offense is clicking on all cylinders with Serretti (11), Compton (10) and Reid (11) all now in double digits with home runs. McCulloch, Jennings, and Gonnelli continue to show opposing coaches that if they chose to pitch around the "Big 3" at the top of the lineup that there's plenty of punch in the middle. Jack Pedini, Andy Serretti, Ryan Davey, Sam Pile and Chris Bruno all have proven to be valuable table setters as the team continues to produce double digit scoring.
The semifinal game against Metuchen will be on Tuesday in Berkeley Heights. First pitch 4 p.m.