SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — With the way Scotch Plains-Fanwood has been hitting the baseball, the Raiders’ pitchers have had plenty of room to work with.
But Jake Friedman’s performance on the mound in Thursday’s sectional quarterfinal would have earned him a win even behind even the most anemic of offenses — though that certainly wouldn’t be a description for the Raiders’ bats.
Friedman may have struck out only one batter, but he got outs at an efficient rate and benefited from a crisp defense behind him. The senior righty allowed one hit through six innings, and No. 4 seed Scotch Plains-Fanwood erupted for nine runs on 13 hits to crush No. 5 seed Union, 9-1, and advance to its first sectional semifinal since 2015.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood will meet archrival and No. 1 seed Westfield in the semifinal, which will be held Tuesday afternoon in Westfield. SPF and Westfield split two regular-season meetings this year.
Sophomore Dean Kirian remained red-hot and went 3-for-3 with two RBI and three runs scored to lead the Raiders’ offense, which has outscored opponents, 25-6, in its first two state tournament games. Anthony DiNizo also drove in two runners and missed a home run by inches on two separate occasions, settling for a double and triple. Both Sam Schetelich and Josh Canavan added two hits and an RBI apiece, while Will Gale collected a pair of hits and scored twice.
Picking up his sixth win of the year, Friedman (6+ IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 5 BB, 1 K, HBP) retired 10 straight batters during a span from the first to fourth inning after allowing a first-inning single to Union’s Jerry Gamone. Friedman’s afternoon ended after walking the first three batters in the seventh, but fellow senior righty Matt Kipp came on and got the final three outs to secure the win.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood was clinging to a 3-0 lead entering the fourth inning, which, although it seemed sizable given the way Friedman was cruising, was certainly smaller than the Raiders’ preference.
But the Raiders cracked the game wide open with a five-run fourth, spearheaded by a big RBI double off the bat of DiNizo that missed clearing the left field wall by mere feet. Kirian, Schetelich and Matt Syvertsen also added RBIs in the game-changing inning.
DiNizo extended the lead to 9-0 an inning later, when he tripled home Kirian on a towering fly ball to deep right-center field.
Perhaps the most impressive indicator of just how locked in the Raiders offense is was how it rocked highly touted Union ace Mike Velez. A junior righty committed to Division I Wagner University whose fastball reaches a major league level 92 miles-per-hour, Velez struck out seven and allowed just one earned run in five innings against the Raiders exactly one calendar week ago — Friedman started for the Raiders that night, as well.
But when the stakes were exponentially higher Thursday, Scotch Plains-Fanwood cracked Velez.
Scratching a run across in each of the first three innings, the Raiders chased Velez after just 2 2/3 innings, tagging him for three runs (all earned) on six hits, while drawing a pair of walks and benefiting from a hit-by-pitch. That opened the gate to Union’s bullpen, which had grown to become vulnerable as the season went on, and certainly was on Thursday.
The Raiders charged four earned runs to Andrew Sanborn, who was first out of the bullpen, and added an additional two runs (one earned) to the ledger of Brandon Bedlivey, who relieved Sanborn.
After being stymied by Friedman for six innings, Union did finally get on the board when it drew three consecutive walks to chase the Raiders’ starter. Dren Gocaj then grounded a single to left against the Raiders’ Kipp, who inherited three base runners with no out in the seventh upon relieving Friedman. However, Kipp sealed the deal by retiring the next three batters in order without allowing another runner to come across.
Gocaj and Gamone accounted for the only two Union hits — both of which were singles.
There’s a good chance that Friedman will be front-and-center again when the Raiders battle Westfield on Tuesday, as he will have the standard four days of rest to recover and prepare. Expect Westfield to counter with its undefeated ace, Cory Hiltz (6-0), owner of a 3.06 ERA in and fresh off eight innings of one-run ball to beat Phillipsburg in the quarterfinal.
But if the Raiders keep hitting they way they have been, it doesn’t really seem to matter who the opposition puts on the mound.