CRANFORD — Joseph Meola squeezed home the game-winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning as Cranford walked-off against Scotch Plains-Fanwood, 6-5, on Tuesday.
The Cougars jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in the second inning, but as their offense stalled, Scotch Plains-Fanwood crept back and took a 5-4 lead in the fifth, which it held until Cranford's last licks.
Denis McCaffery’s Cranford squad — one known for using gutty small ball and speed to strike opponents — executed its tactics to a tee in the seventh.
Tyler Szczech led off with a bloop single into shallow right field and Aidan Plick followed with a walk. A double steal set up second and third with no outs before Marcus Johnson brought home Szczech with a sacrifice fly to center after fighting off multiple two strikes pitches. Johnson eventually brought in the run with a sac fly, but the original plan was to squeeze.
"Going up there, I got the bunt sign, so I was just trying to get him in and lay the bunt down," said Johnson. "I got two strikes on me and I was just trying to foul them all off until I got the pitch I liked. I saw one inside and down the middle and I just tried to get it deep out of the infield to score the run."
Though the bunt didn't work with Johnson, McCaffery stuck to his game and gave the signal to Meola, who dropped down a textbook bunt into no-mans land between SPFW pitcher Patrick Cuccurullo, third baseman Tyler Stines, and catcher Chris Smith. There was no sense in even making a play, as Plick crossed the plate before the ball was even picked up.
"Bunts are one of the biggest things that Cranford always works on every day in practice," said Johnson. "Squeezes, bunting for hits, all of that stuff, just getting down the bunts."
Johnson played a critical role in the bottom of the seventh, but he may have been even more crucial in the top half of the inning.
With runners on first and second with two outs, SPFW cleanup hitter Michael Dieu slashed one past a diving Jake DiClerico at shortstop. Leadoff hitter, Jonathan Ramos, on second base rounded third and headed home but was gunned out at the plate by Johnson from left field for the final out, keeping the Cougars' deficit to just one.
"He's been in our program and we knew he was very talented," said McCaffery of Johnson. "He did a nice job with two-strike hitting and did a nice job throwing the guy out at the plate. It was very important to keep that run and that it wasn't a two-run deficit."
Kevin Donovan recorded just one out, but was the winning pitcher for Cranford. It was Jake Van Dam who did the heavy lifting mound going 6 2/3 and allowed five runs (four earned) on four hits while walking four and striking out five.
"Jake's a gamer. Jake's in great shape and a hard-working kid in the weight room," said McCaffery. "He still had command of his fastball, then he was able to get command of his curveball in the later part of the game, so we were very comfortable with him."
Leadoff hitter for the Cougars, Jimmy Shriner, finished 1-for-2 with two RBI and two walks. Designated hitter, Michael Meola, was 1-for-3 with an RBI.
"A win is a win and anytime that you can get a win is good," Cranford coach Dennis McCaffery said. "Scotch Plains is a well coached team. We know that every time that we play them, it's going to come down to a one-run game most times. Fortunately this time we were able to come on top."
Cranford will be on the road this Thursday against Union at 4 p.m. The Cougars next home game will be Tuesday against Westfield at 4 p.m.
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