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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The top seeded Gov. Livingston Highlanders stormed back from a first inning four run deficit to beat the 9th seeded South Plainfield Tigers 9-5 in the second round of the Central Jersey, Group II state sectional playoffs Friday afternoon in Berkeley Heights. Gov. Livingston scored five fifth inning runs with Drew Compton (2-4, HR,2RBI) delivering a mammoth game tying two run homer and Sean McCulloch (2-3, 4 RBI) ripping a go ahead two run single to erase the South Plainfield lead. Highlander winning pitcher Ryan Davey (3-1) survived a rocky first inning, tossed 5.1 innings before giving way to Joey DeFeo, who recorded his 9th save of the season. Gov. Livingston raised their season record to 21-4 and will now meet five seed Point Pleasant Boro (20-6) in the tournament semifinals on Tuesday afternoon in Berkeley Heights.
As South Plainfield made the long walk up the hill to take on Gov. Livingston, the visiting Tigers were in very familiar territory. The two teams have met in the state playoffs each of the last two years with the Highlanders dealing the Tigers season ending losses both times. This year, pitching rich South Plainfield (18-9), came in feeling very confident that this would be the year they would end Gov. Livingston’s recent playoff dominance over them. South Plainfield Coach Anthony Guida may not have had Seton Hall bound Chris Shine (7-1,.55 ERA) available after he shutout Del Val in the Tigers' first round game, but he had hard throwing left-hander Jordan Hamberg rested and ready. Hamberg ( 34 IP, 11ER 44K) would toe the rubber for the Tigers with an impressive 5-1 season under his belt that included a perfect game against Woodbridge.
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Highlander senior Ryan Davey, who missed the majority of the season with a foot injury, was given the starting nod by Gov. Livingston veteran Coach Chris Roof with hopes that his experienced right-hander could go deep into the game before he would turn things over to lefty closer DeFeo.
Things did not go well for Gov. Livingston in the first inning as South Plainfield jumped on Davey (5.1IP,7H,5ER,3K) rapping out six hits on their way to posting a quick 4-0 lead. Tiger leadoff man TJ Massaro (1-3) got things going with a perfect bunt for a hit on the game's first pitch. As expected, Guida continued to play small ball as Massaro was moved into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. South Plainfield then strung together five straight hits with the big blow coming on a two run double by Brody Donovan (1-3,2B,2RBI) before Davey managed to get out of the inning.
After Hamberg put Gov. Livingston down in the first inning on just six pitches, the South Plainfield defense opened the door for the Highlanders in the second as they misplayed two balls in the infield. John Grill (1-2, 3R) drew a leadoff walk and an error put runners on first and second. McCulloch, looking to move the runners up, laid down a perfect bunt that was fielded by Hamberg, who threw it away allowing Grill to score the Highlanders' first run. Ethan Saia (2-3,RBI) followed with an RBI single and it looked like a big inning was in the works with no outs and the bases loaded. However, Hamberg struck out the next batter and then got leadoff man Michael Delsordo (2-4, R) to ground into an inning ending double play.
By now, Davey had settled and it looked like Hamberg was the one who was struggling as the Highlanders threatened again in the third. Andy Serretti (1-2, 2HBP) and Grill reached Hamberg for back to back singles putting runners on the corners with one out. Unfortunately for Gov. Livingston, they would hit into their third double play of the game and Hamberg and South Plainfield would escape still holding a 4-2 lead.
Davey and Hamberg both managed to string together scoreless frames, pitching around some wildness and poor defense as the game headed into the bottom of the fifth.
After getting a one pitch pop out to open the bottom of the fifth, the game's most dramatic moment was about to unfold. Delsordo slapped Hamberg’s next pitch into right field for a base hit bringing up the state's leading home run Drew Compton. Switch hitting Compton, who was batting from the right side, was clearly looking to tie the game with one swing when he took a vicious cut at Hamberg’s first pitch, fouling it off. Hamberg, who had gotten Compton his first two times on a hard grounder and a fly out moved his next two pitches off the plate after watching Compton's first pitch hack. However, the young hard throwing lefty then chose to challenge the ACC bound and MLB prospect with a fast ball that was absolutely crushed. Into a strong wind, Compton hit a rising liner over the 20ft high left field fence for his 13th dinger of the season and 25th of his spectacular career as a Highlander.
With the game now tied at 4-4, Gov. Livingston seized control of the game as Hamberg was clearly unnerved as a result of Compton's blast. Andy Serretti was hit by a pitch and Grill and Chris Bruno followed with walks loading the bases. Now it was junior McCulloch who came through with the inning's second clutch hit when he gave the Highlanders their first lead of the game with a two run single. Gov. Livingston would add another run on a Jayson Schmidt squeeze bunt, but to Hamberg’s credit, he got out of the inning with a strikeout and fly out.
In the top of the 6th, a fatigued Davey was done for the day after giving a pair of walks. Roof got exactly what he had hoped for from Davey, five plus innings of work, as he now called on his closer DeFeo. DeFeo, who has appeared in 14 of the Highlanders' 25 games this season, needed to get five more outs for the Highlanders to advance in tournament play.
DeFeo walked Mike Marrero (1-3) on 4 pitches to load the bags and now it was gut check time for the senior left-hander. Hamberg (1-4,RBI), who was also batting third in the Tiger lineup, then grounded out scoring a run. Now, with the tying runs on second and third, South Plainfield’s best hitter and long ball threat Chris Shine stepped in. Shine battled DeFeo in a classic 8 pitch at bat before the Highlanders sneaky lefty broke a cure ball down and in striking out the Tiger cleanup hitter to end the inning.
Gov. Livingston would tack on a couple of insurance runs in the 6th on a McCulloch deep sac fly and a thrilling steal of home by Grill to carry a 9-5 lead into the the last inning.
South Plainfield made DeFeo work in the seventh, getting a pair of runners on with one out before they hit two harmless fly balls to end the game. For the third consecutive season, a stunned South Plainfield team and a large contingent of loyal Tiger fans would see their season come to an end at the hands of the Highlanders.
Point Pleasant Boro (21-6) will make the long trek up the GSP to face Gov. Livingston with a battle tested team that is fresh off capturing their first ever Ocean County Tournament Championship. Last season Coach Dave Drew’s (9th yr) team made it all the way to the South Jersey, Group II finals before losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to Haddonfield. The Panthers returned almost all of last season's team which includes junior flamethrower and St. John commit Nick Guzzi and senior Sam Collins. This season, Guzzi is 8-0 with 69 strikeouts in 49 innings and a 1.12 ERA. Collins has thrown 52 innings while pitching to a 1.08 ERA. Both are fully rested and have their maximum pitch counts available. Collins leads the Panther offense with 37 hits and a .416 average, and Guzzi is close behind at .352 while playing the left side of the infield when not pitching. Sam Young leads the team with 4 homers.
Expect John Grill to be on the bump for Gov. Livingston, with Jarod Abram and of course DeFeo ready as need be. The key for the Highlanders is for their pitchers to limit their walks and for the defense to play error free. If they give Point Pleasant Boro extra outs, expect a season ending loss. On offense the lower half of the lineup has got to put pressure on the Panther defense by playing small ball against fireballer Guzzi. If they can get on one big swing from either Compton, Grill, Serretti, or Bruno, who have combined for 25 home runs, that could be the difference maker in the game.
First pitch is set for 4 p.m.m. If Gov. Livingston is fortunate enough to get by Point Pleasant Boro they would host the Central Jersey, Group II Sectional Final against either Bordentown or Robbinsville on Friday May 31st.