BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Tyler McCulloch hit a grand slam and Liam Hulburt pitched five shutout innings as the top seed Gov. Livingston eliminated 16th seed Carteret in the opening round of the Central Jersey, Group II playoffs, Monday in Berkeley Heights.
The Highlanders jumped out to a 4-0 first inning lead and put up five more on McCulloch’s (2-4, HR) slam and a solo shot from Jack Pedini (2-4, HR) in support of Hulburt (5 IP, 2H, 3K) who recorded his sixth win of the season. John Grill (2 IP, 1 H, 3 K) pitched two scoreless innings in relief to complete the shutout. Gov. Livingston, 21-3-1 now advances to meet one of the hottest teams in the state, South Plainfield (19-9), who defeated Johnson 7-5 in their opening round game. South Plainfield will be looking for revenge as Gov. Livingston stunned the Tigers in last years sectional finals by scoring three runs with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning for a dramatic 6-5 walk off win.
Danny Serretti (1-4) opened the playoff game with his 100th career hit, a line drive base hit into centerfield off Carteret starter Jacob Jarosz. Serretti joins teammate Drew Compton who reached the 100 hit club last week against Westfield in the UCT finals. Jarosz immediately erased Serretti as he then got Compton (2-4,2B) to ground into a double play, but with two outs things quickly went bad for the Ramblers senior left hander. Jarosz working carefully to power hitting Stephen Reid walked him on a full count. DJ Gonnelli (2-3, 2R) followed with a base hit putting runners on the corners. With Gonnelli drawing a throw to second when attempting to steal, Reid broke for home and scored the Highlanders first run. Will Jennings (1-4, 2 RBI) followed a walk to McCulloch with a two run double and Pedini picked up Jennings with a base hit to close out the first inning scoring.
Gov. Livingston picked up another run when Pedini hit his third homer of the year, a deep drive over the left field fence to make it 5-0 after three innings of play. The lead ballooned to 9-0 in the next inning as the Highlanders took advantage of some poor Carteret defensive play. A Compton base hit and back to back Carteret errors loaded he bases for the Highlanders with one out in the bottom the 4th. McCulloch made the Ramblers pay for their miscues as he took a 2-0 pitch deep to straight away center for hs first career grand slam.
After having loaded the bases in the first inning on a couple of walks and hit batter, Hulburt was now in compete control as the Ramblers never threatened to score for the remainder of the game. Grill was just as effective as Hulburt, dominating the Ramblers in his two innings of work which included two 7th inning strike outs.
Gov. Livingston's quarter final matchup with the 9th seed South Plainfield will pit two of the hottest teams in the state against one another. South Plainfield has won 15 of their last 17 games, with their two losses coming by a total of three runs. The Tigers outstanding play also has them playing in the Championship game of the Middlesex Conference Tournament on Saturday, as the Tigers will be seeking their first ever MCT title. Gov. Livingston fresh off winning the 2018 Union County Championship, has won 19 of their last 20. The Highlanders have lost three games this season, with all three by a single run.
South Plainfield returns to the "Hill" with a host of motivated players (six starters) who felt the pain of Gov. Livingston's come from behind stunning win last year. Lefty Billy Keane (6-2) who was the loser in last year's sectional final was the winning pitcher in Monday's win over Johnson. Keane (.355) most likely will not see the mound, but is a very good hitter in the middle of the Tiger lineup. He will be joined by teammates Connor Adams (.368), Rob Gonzalez (.338), Mike Stanczak (.330), Mike Marrero, and TJ Massaro all of who started in last year's game. Senior shortstop Stanczak has blasted 9 homers this season, including three in the teams MCT semi-final win over Old Bridge this past weekend. Chris Shine (.348) when not pitching also provides some pop with his bat, having connected for three home runs this year. Also, expect South Plainfield to try to steal some runs playing small ball to give their talented pitching staff an early lead.
However, the key to the game for Coach Anthony Guida and the Tigers will be how he manages his pitching. Guida can either start Seton Hall commit Shine or go with his No. 3 starter Gonzalez. Junior ace Shine (4-2), who has been one of the best pitchers in the state this year, is pitching to a .40 ERA. In 45 innings of work he has given up just three earned runs and has fanned 60 batters. Gonzalez (4-1) has a complete game 14 strikeout 1 hitter under his belt and sports a .68 ERA in 21 innings of mound work. However, the big question for Guida is does he start his ace Shine against Gov. Livingston's explosive offense (10 runs/gm.) or does he save his best arm for the MCT finals on Saturday. Don’t be surprised to see Gonzalez get the ball , and go as long as he can before Guida calls on Shine or even Keane if need be to shut down or close out the Highlanders.
Regardless of who South Plainfield sends out to the mound, the Tiger hurlers will have to deal with a Highlander lineup that produces 1-9. Gov. Livingston has belted a state leading 44 home runs this season and averages 10 runs per game. The "Big 3" at the top of the lineup D. Serritti, Compton, and Reid who have combined for 31 homers and over 100 RBI has forced opponents to pick their poison as to who they will pitch to. Opposing coaches don’t want to pitch to them but they can't afford to pitch around all three either, which has made the rest of a very productive lineup even more dangerous. DJ Gonnelli, Ty McCulloch, Will Jennings, Jack Pedini, and Andy Serretti have proven all year long they are tough outs no matter where they are hitting in the lineup.
Despite the danger the Highlander lineup poses, the game will come down to pitching. Gov. Livingston Coach Chris Roof will send out lefty DJ Gonnelli (5-0, 1.34 ERA)) who has had an impressive season, giving up just 8 earned runs in 42 innings of work. He has not pitched less than six innings in any start, with six of the seven teams he faced this season winning opening round playoff games on Monday. If Roof needs to look to the bullpen he will most likely go to Ryan Davey (2-1, .43 ERA)) who has been a lights out closer for the Highlanders. Liam Hulburt is also available after throwing 69 pitches in Monday's win.
After defeating Carteret, Gov. Livingston has now won an NJSIAA playoff game in 13 straight seasons. The Highlanders have won four Central Jersey, Group II State Sectional Championships since 2006, including last year's championship defeat of South Plainfield in the finals. South Plainfield will be looking for redemption after having the state title literally ripped away from them last May. If you are a baseball fan and want to see two teams loaded with next level talent make your way up the" Hill" at Governor Livingston on Thursday at 4 p.m.