WARREN, NJ - A blinding sun field, a precision left-hander and a sophomore slugger with a swing as sweet as Fred McGriff's conspired to send Millburn's baseball team packing for the summer.
Watchung Hills scored all its runs during a critical three-batter sequence in the fourth inning, and Brian Reiss pitched an extremely economical five-hitter to lift the Warriors to a 3-0 victory over Millburn in the semifinal round of the Section 2, Group 4 state tournament on Tuesday.
Millburn (23-4) was seeking its second consecutive Group 4 state championship.
The game took just one hour and 20 minutes to complete, and some of the breaks that undid the Millers also seemed to come in a blink-and-you-missed it flash. In the decisive fourth inning, with one out, Matt Mastrobattista lifted a towering fly ball that Millburn right fielder Mike Garawitz couldn't find in the bright sunlight. The ball fell and by the time Garawitz retrieved it and relayed it back in, Mastrobattista was on third.
"Mike said that once the ball got above a certain height out there (in right field), he just couldn't see the ball," Millburn coach Brian Chapman said.
Moments later, on a walk to Ed Poggi, Millburn pitcher Brian Lannino's pitch bounced away and Mastrobattista beat Lannino to the plate to give Watchung Hills (27-4) a 1-0 lead.
The next batter, tall left-handed 10th-grader Brandon Hylton, went down and turned on a Lannino fastball that got too much of the plate and launched it into the shrubbery beyond the right-field fence for a two-run homer as Garawitz slammed into the temporary fence and dislodged it in pursuit of the round-tripper.
"We'd seen them play about eight times, and we knew we had to stay away from (Hylton)," Chapman said. "But he hit the hell out of the ball."
Lannino (9-1), who finished with six hits allowed, a walk and four strikeouts in six innnings, had escaped trouble by inducing inning-ending double play grounders in each of the first three innings. Millburn never had more than one baserunner in any inning before the seventh, with Peter Gula the only one to make it to scoring position after his two-out triple to right field in the third.
In the seventh, the Millers mounted what appeared to be a legitimate threat, but before Watchung Hills fans could even muster the hint of anxiety, the threat was gone. The first two batters, Richie Schiekofer and Kevin Czapelski, each hit singles to right. Garawitz came up with none out and the right-handed hitter scorched the ball for his third time in three at-bats. But for the second at-bat in a row, he hit in hard luck, lining the ball right into the glove of first baseman Poggi, who was on the bag as he caught the line drive--while Czapelski was a step off the bag and was doubled off.
Just like that, Millburn went from two on and none out to one on and two out. Reiss (11-1), the Monmouth University-bound southpaw who struck out four and walked none, ended up needing fewer than 75 pitches to dispatch Millburn over seven very fast innings.
"Against a team of Watchung Hills' caliber, you just can't have any hiccups," Chapman said. "They were just as good as advertised."