LIVINGSTON, NJ -- Perhaps if the grounds crew had set their lawn-mowing blades a little lower, or if there had not been a downpour the night before, MJ DePaola might have had a no-hitter.
The senior right-hander instead pitched a two-hitter to lift the Livingston baseball team to a 4-0 victory over Paterson Kennedy in the first round of the Section 1, Group 4 state tournament on Monday.
Both of JFK's hits were groundballs--in the fifth and sixth innings--to shortstop that were slowed down by the high infield grass on Livingston's diamond. But DePaola, who once pitched a no-hitter as a sophomore in a regular-season game, was not about to quibble.
"I try not to think about that," said DePaola, who improved his record to 4-3. "As long as we get the win. I just try to win every game however I can."
DePaola struck out nine batters and walked four, but he didn't allow any walks after the third inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded jam. With two out and one runner on by way of a walk in the third inning, the big righty then walked consecutive batters to load the bases, bringing up Paterson Kennedy's third-place batter in a scoreless game.
DePaola worked the count full, and then threw a fastball by the hitter for strike three to get out of the jam unscathed.
"I was losing my composure a bit, and I just had to bear down," DePaola said of the third inning. "On 2 and 2, I threw him a slider that just missed outside, and then I struck him out on a fastball."
"Today was the best combination of his best two pitches, his fastball and his slider, that I have seen from MJ this season," Livingston head coach Mickey Ennis said. "He had control of both of them better than any other game this year. This is a very good hitting team that we played, so we were emphasizing the breaking pitch with MJ today.
"He put this game on his back today. Once we scored a couple of runs for him, he was on cruise control."
Senior third baseman Chris Senney, who was 3-for-3 with an intentional walk, laced a two-out single through the box with nobody on in the third inning for Livingston (12-8). Then, Lancers' cleanup batter Robert Sayle got hold of an 0-2 pitch that was too good and crushed it to deep left-center field for an RBI triple.
In the fifth inning, the Lancers again did damage after there were two out and nobody on base. And again it was Senney who ignited the uprising with another single ripped over the shortstop's head. Sayle singled to left, Evan Kamikow legged out a slow roller to shortstop for an infield single, and then, on a 3-0 pitch, David Cotugno got the green light and hit another groundball to short that was slowed down by the high grass, allowing a run to score for a 2-0 Livingston lead.
"This past homestretch has been good for me," said Senney, who has hit safely in his last four games to raise his batting average to .379. "I'm a senior who's got about 12 or 13 hits to go for 100 for my career. I just try to play the game the right way and swing at good pitches. With two outs, if I see a fastball, I'm just trying to put a good swing on it."
Ennis was particularly cheered by seeing his team piece together a pair of two-out rallies.
"To score runs after there are two out and none on, that's the sign of a team that could compete for a championship," Ennis said. "That was really good to see from them."
Livingston made matters more comfortable by adding on two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Pinch-hitter David Poesl opened the frame with a single to left before Josh Greenberg replaced him on the bases as a re-entry runner. Matt Feit put down a bunt that first eluded the grasp of the JFK pitcher, who then turned and threw wildly past first base to put runners on second and third. With one out, Will Egner singled in one run. Later in the inning, Sayle knocked in the fourth run of the game with a sacrifice fly.
Last year, Livingston won the Greater Newark Tournament, but did not win a state tournament game. This year, the Lancers, denied a spot in the GNT semifinals, already have one state tournament victory under their belts. Getting another one won't be easy: Livingston, the seventh seed, will travel to second-seeded Ridgewood for the sectional quarterfinal on Thursday.
Paterson Eastside (12-8) 000 000 0 -- 0 2 2
Livingston (12-8) 001 012 x -- 4 11 0
WP-MJ DePaola (4-3)