PISCATAWAY, NJ - After one inning, Millburn found itself in unfamiliar territory: Embroiled in a potential slugfest.
But Millburn kept hitting, while its two pitchers put a halt to its opponent's mashing ways.
Pitchers Mike Kologlu and Alex Byington combined to allow one hit over the final six innings and Millburn banged out 11 hits in an 8-2 victory over Ridgewood in the NJSIAA Group 4 state semifinal Tuesday at Rutgers University.
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Millburn (25-5) will vie for its second overall Group 4 state championship in three years Saturday in Toms River. Its opponent will be the winner of Wednesday's other Group 4 semifinal between Hunterdon Central and Southern Regional of Manahawkin.
The Millers had spent the state tournament up until this point riding exceptional pitching, solid defense and an offense that was efficient and opportunistic, but not blazing hot. That changed on Tuesday, when Millburn spent the gray, chilly late afternoon lashing line drive after line drive up and down its lineup. The first four Millburn batters of the game all delivered singles in the top of the first. The hits by Peter Gula, Ben Pampush, Richie Schiekofer and Peter Serruto, along with a two-base error, produced a 3-0 lead out of the gate.
But Ridgewood (23-5), which was averaging more than 11 runs per game in the state tournament before meeting up with Millburn, answered right back with a pair of doubles to open the bottom of the first. Four hits and a hit batsman produced two runs against Millburn starter Mike Kologlu, who clung to a 3-2 lead after an inning.
"I tried to talk to the coaches after that inning, and we decided I should try to take maybe 3 miles an hour off my pitches, take a deep breath, throw strikes and get more groundouts," said Kologlu, a senior, who retired 10 batters in a row and yielded just one more hit before being relieved to start the sixth inning by Alex Byington. A junior right-hander, Byington retired all six batters he faced to finish the Bergen County team off.
"It starts off as a slugfest, and then it's really important for Mike to settle in," Millburn coach Brian Chapman said. "We get three, and then they punched us right back, and when their pitcher got us out 1-2-3 in the top of the second, it was important that Mike do the same."
Kologlu (8-0) walked one and struck out one, but got ahead of the hitters most of the way after the first inning. Byington struck out one batter in his two innings.
"Michael and Alex are such fun pitchers to watch when they take something off," Chapman said. "They both located the hell out of the ball today."
Millburn's hitting lull in innings two and three was only temporary, and it was Kologlu himself who re-ignited the flame when he led off the fourth inning with a ringing triple to left-center. Millburn's tandem of freshman phenoms combined to knock in three runs in the inning, as ninth-grader Ben Chrzanowski singled in a run, then scampered all the way to third when Matt Knowles' sacrifice bunt was thrown down the right-field line for a two-base error. Then freshman Ben Sinins hammered a two-run triple on a line over the center fielder's head. Sinins scored on Gula's sac fly to give Millburn a 7-2 lead.
"I got a fastball on the first pitch and tried to drive it in the gap," Kologlu said of his rally-starting triple in the fourth inning. "I felt like it jump-started the entire team. We've been all pitching and defense recently, but this game, everyone was hitting."
Jared Nemet knocked in Millburn's final run with a pinch-single in the fifth after Serruto led off with a single and Chrzanowski drew a two-out walk.
Pampush, Schiekofer and Serruto each finished with two hits. Kologlu threw 85 pitches in five innings, but 29 of those came in the opening frame. He and Byington will both be eligible to pitch on Saturday, in addition to projected starter Connor Lally (7-1).