CRANFORD, NJ — For the second year in a row, it’s heartbreak for the Scotch Plains-Fanwood varsity baseball team in the Union County Tournament (UCT). Saturday at Cranford, the Raiders lost in walk-off fashion in extra innings, 3-2, to the Cranford Cougars in the UCT Semifinals — arguably one of the greatest high school baseball games of the year.
With the game knotted up at two apiece and two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Cranford’s Patrick Connelly hit a slow-rolling ground ball past the pitcher’s mound that Scotch Plains second baseman Sam Schetelich couldn’t reach in time, while James Shriner scored from third and ended Scotch Plains’ run in the counties.
The Raiders came within inches of winning the game an inning before.
Schetelich hit a ground-rule double that sent Colin McAlindin — who would’ve scored if the ball didn’t bounce over the right-field fence — to third base as the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh. What Cranford did next is something rarely seen on a baseball field.
The Cougars went with five infielders.
Fittingly, pinch-hitter Ryan Yawger lined a ground ball to Cranford’s fifth infielder, playing up the middle in front of second base. McAlindin broke toward home and the “infielder” fired a strike to the catcher, who tagged McAlindin out in a very close play at the plate. Raiders coaches Joe Higgins and J.R. Luccarelli were irate at the call, while the rest of the team was in a state of disbelief.
While the Raiders were unlucky in that instance, luck was on their side the next half inning.
In the bottom of the seventh, Cranford’s Tyler Szczech roped a line drive at left fielder Patrick Downey, who initially broke in on the ball, which sailed over his head. The baseball rolled all the way to the outfield fence, but Downey picked it up, fired a strike to shortstop Peter Warren, the cutoff man, and Warren threw a seed to catcher Peter Yarem, who tagged the runner out at the plate.
Scotch Plains once held a lead in the game. After falling behind, 1-0, in the first inning, the Raiders responded with a two-run fourth. Yarem, a senior, launched an RBI double down the right-field line, and Warren, also a senior, executed a textbook suicide squeeze bunt off Cranford pitcher Gordon Graceffo.
Cranford tied up the game in the fourth, playing small ball to scratch together a run.
Danny Wilkinson, a sophomore, got the start for Scotch Plains, and gutted out a very solid outing. In five innings pitched and a high pitch count (98), Wilkinson allowed two runs (one earned), struck out five, scattered three hits, walked two and hit a batter. Tim Geissel (2.2 IP, 4 H, ER, BB, 3 K) relieved Wilkinson, and while he stands as the losing pitcher, looked very strong out of the bullpen for only the second time this season. Geissel was pitching for the second time in four days, after throwing a five-inning one-hitter against Union in Wednesday's quarterfinal.
Cranford’s Graceffo tossed an eight-inning complete game, allowing only four Raider hits, striking out five and walking one.
Cranford advances to the UCT final and will face Westfield at Kean University next Saturday. Scotch Plains plays host to Elizabeth in regular season action Tuesday at 4 p.m. at SPFHS.