ANNANDALE, NJ - A pair of two-run home runs-- one by sophomore TJ Massaro in the second inning and one by senior Dylan O’Connor in the sixth – propelled the South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team to a 7-4 road victory over North Hunterdon Thursday evening.
The Tigers (7-3) got a good outing on the mound from winning pitcher Roberto Gonzalez, who gave up four runs on eight hits while striking out eight and walking four in 5 1/3 innings of work.
David Tavarez relieved Gonzalez in the sixth and recorded a five-out save that included a clutch strikeout of Grant Sible with the bases loaded to end the sixth with the Tigers clinging to a 6-4 lead.
South Plainfield overcame a first inning home run to left-center field by the Lions’ Matt Busher and a two-run single to right in the sixth by Justin Johnson.
“That was a good win,” Tigers Head Coach Anthony Guida said after the thriller. “It was a great game on both sides. Unfortunately, one team had to lose. But they played well and we both hit the ball really well. Both teams, it was a very well-played high school game,” he said.
Holding on to a tense 3-2 lead to begin the top of the sixth, shortstop Mike Stanczak set the table with a bloop double to left. He was followed by a towering two-run homer to left by O’Connor the very next at bat.
“It’s For The Boys, it’s For The Boys! Let that be known,” O’Connor said, paraphrasing a cheer that can often be heard from inside the Tigers dugout.“It was amazing, honestly. It’s my first [varsity homerun] ever. I’m really excited because it put two runs on the board. Mike’s leadoff double just started off the inning, and on top of that I contributed,” O’Connor said.
“It gave us a big boost,” Guida said of his centerfielder’s blast that put the Tigers up 5-2. “It was a great emotional run around the bases for him and I was happy to see that. It was a huge situation for us to be up three. Being up only one, any coach is going to be a little nervous there. Giving us a three run cushion on that one big swing was nice,” he said.
“And he almost broke my hand slapping it,” Guida joked.
The Tigers would add one more run in the sixth to go ahead 6-2. Gonzalez followed up the O’Connor homerun with a bunt single and DH Billy Keane advanced him with a sacrifice groundout to second. With two outs, Massaro doubled off the top of the centerfield wall for his third RBI of the day.
But it wasn’t nearly Massaro’s biggest hit of the game.
With his team down 1-0 with two outs in the top of the second, Massaro blasted a two run homer to right off North Hunterdon’s Ben Kaplan. Gonzalez had led off the frame with a double.
The game was a potential turning point for Massaro, who has jumped between the varsity and JV teams all season.
“It was a big moment for him,” said Guida. “If he’s able to handle varsity pitching then he’s going to get more at bats.”
“Actually right before the homerun I asked Jared [Marks] if I should hop on the first pitch and he said ‘yeah,’ so I came up to the plate having a good feeling about it,” Massaro told TAPinto. “He threw it right there and I just took a swing at it, and it went. It was a really good feeling, actually,” he said.
He missed a two homerun game by a few feet.
“I felt very good about [the sixth inning double], too. I wish that went out, it hit the fence,” Massaro said. “I’ve been going on and off of varsity, but I feel like I’m getting better and better and that’s all I can hope for.”
“TJ coming up from JV as a sophomore, dropping nukes out here left and right, I didn’t see that one coming,” O’Connor joked.
South Plainfield extended their lead to 3-1 later in the second when second baseman Chris Shine singled up the middle and left fielder Connor Adams doubled to right center to put runners on second and third. Catcher Jared Marks then belted an RBI single to right that Shine scored on easily but Adams was thrown out at home plate to end the threat.
The Lions made it 3-2 in the bottom of the third. Busher drew a walk and advanced to third on a well executed hit and run play when John Macce singled to right. Busher would score the very next at bat on an RBI base hit to center.
North Hunterdon scored their final two runs and chased Gonzalez in the bottom of the sixth down 6-2. Billy Russo led off with a single to left and Andrew Cuthill doubled to left center to set up Johnson’s two run single.
Tavarez came in with two on and one out and forced Macce into a sacrifice groundout. An intentional walk loaded the bases with two outs when Sible came to the plate. Tavarez was elated after getting the strikeout.
“You know, it felt good because the bases were loaded. Any little hit would’ve scored more runs but we got through that inning,” Tavarez said. He was happy to preserve the win for Gonzalez, his teammate.
“He earned the right to go out there and pitch the seventh,” Guida said of Tavarez. “Roberto had a pitch count issue, but he also was struggling a bit so it was a perfect spot to get him out and put David in and he threw strikes in some tense moments there,” he said.
The Tigers would add their last insurance run in the top of the seventh with an RBI infield hit by Mike Stanczak to go up 7-4. Tavarez sailed in the bottom of the seventh to finish the Lions off.
Between both teams, there was more power on display than South Plainfield is accustomed to seeing.
“I actually said maybe in the fourth inning that for both teams it was like an extra base game. There were no singles; it was all extra base hits,” Guida said. “They had a homerun, they had a double, and we both were hitting the ball for power which was really nice to see.”
“And coming to this field I saw a lot of outfield, but I never really thought that the ball would carry, but the ball carried a lot today,” said Guida. “TJ hit the fence, he hit a home run. Even their guys hit the fence a couple times. It was fun to see a game like that.”
South Plainfield now heads to the Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge Saturday against Millburn at 1PM at North Brunswick Community Park. Then they begin a home and home series with Piscataway.