SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team is headed to the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 Sectional Finals. The second-seeded Tigers prevailed in nine thrilling innings over the Voorhees Vikings by a score of 2-1 after a walk-off base hit by second baseman Roberto Gonzalez scored Tiger center fielder Dylan O’Connor.
The Tigers (19-9) will next play on Friday against the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal matchup between No. 5 Bernards and top-seeded Gov. Livingston.
Both teams scored a run in the first and then locked horns for the next eight innings as aces Jean Sapini of South Plainfield and Ethan Osgood of Voorhees put forth brilliant performances, trading zeros on the scoreboard.
In the bottom of the ninth with the score still knotted at 1-1, South Plainfield was able to string multiple hits together against Osgood for the first time since early in the contest. With one out, O’Connor laced a single down the left field line to put a runner on base. He advanced to second when first baseman Billy Keane dunked a base hit of his own to right-center to bring up Gonzalez.
Gonzalez stepped up to the plate hitless in his previous three at-bats before ripping the game-winning RBI single to right to plate the hard-charging O’Connor from second base. “I can’t even explain,” Gonzalez, the emotional sophomore, said of being the hero. “It’s just that, I was trying to do it for the seniors. I didn’t want the season to end because we have a good team. So I was just basically doing it for them. “
Gonzalez took mental notes from his previous trips to the plate for his at-bat in the ninth. “[Osgood] was throwing me more change-ups and not fastballs, but then the one time he threw me a fastball I just took it to right field,” he said. Gonzalez is one of the many young players who weren’t around for the state title run two seasons ago, so this experience is brand new to him. “It feels great because this is my first time going to the championship as a sophomore,” he said. “I have so much adrenaline right now, I can’t even explain.”
“Rob plays with a lot of emotion. He’s the guy over there saying all the crazy stuff in the dugout,” South Plainfield head coach Anthony Guida said of his emerging second baseman.”But he’s got to learn that baseball is a game of failure. He knows that, but he’s got to be able to understand that a little bit better when he makes an out and he really gets down on himself.”
“We’ve talked to him about it, but baseball is a crazy game where the game is going to come back and give you another opportunity, which it did there, and he was up to the task. He put the ball in play which is a big thing we like to teach them, and he got the game-winning hit for us.”
O’Connor rumbled down the third baseline on the Gonzalez hit and slid into home plate head first to set off the jubilant celebration. “He was moving faster than I’ve ever seen him run,” Guida joked.
“I was thinking ‘This is it, Sectional Finals here we come. For the boys!’” O’Connor said, repeating the team rallying cry.
Sapini would finish with a new season-high strikeout total for the Tigers with 12 while allowing one run on only four hits and three walks in the no-decision effort. He was forced to leave the game after eight innings when he exceeded the 110 pitch limit (Chris Shine got the win after working a quick top of the ninth inning). Sapini did not surrender a hit to the Vikings after the fifth, and he struck out two in each of the first, third, fourth, sixth and seventh innings.
“I felt great. My arm felt amazing. I was just able to really spot my pitches and I just kept going out there and battling,” Sapini said of his outing. He enjoyed being involved in an epic pitcher’s duel. “I think the main part is my experience at the varsity level pitching in big games like that. So even though we didn’t have the run support, I knew what I had to do to keep us in that game,” he said.
Getting the no-decision stung a little for Sapini, but he is glad to be moving on. “The entire game I was like, ‘Just give me one [run], just give me one’ after every inning. They didn’t get it for me but they ended up winning the game,” he said.
Sapini vividly remembers the 2015 Group 3 Sectional Semifinal at Roxbury and the final at Cranford. “Honestly, those were our biggest games in 2015, the Sectional Semifinal and Sectional Final, so it’s very good to get this game out of the way. Now we’re just looking forward to [Governor Livingston or Bernards], hoping to get a win on Friday,” he said.
It was frustrating for Guida to have to comply with NJSIAA rules and remove his star pitcher while he was in the zone. “There’s something to be said about Jean. He’s a very respectful, graceful type of player. It’s hard to argue a concrete rule, but he didn’t want to come out of that game. The only people who were happy he was coming out of the game were Vorhees,” he said.
Still, Guida was pleased with Tuesday’s results. “It feels great. Any time we get a win we feel good, but to win a game in that style and that way…we have an opportunity to win something now, get a banner up in the gym. And that’s what we play to do, we try to win championships,” he said.
Guida is ready for the challenge regardless who his team ends up playing on Friday. “I told the kids, ‘where the chips fall, we’ll figure it out tomorrow evening. And whoever it is we’re going to play them hard, just as hard as we did today,” he said.
The Vikings took a quick lead in the first on an unearned run. South Plainfield responded immediately in their half of the inning, with a pair of two out doubles by shortstop Mike Stanczak and O’Connor. ”Nothing better than when they score one and then we match them right back. There’s nothing better than that. Rolling with two outs, as well,” O’Connor said.
“It was very nice to tie the game up and at least play the game tied instead of being down one and the momentum continues to go on their side,” said Guida. “So it was good to come right back with two outs, two doubles right in a row, and we were able to win the game.”
The defensive play of the game came in the top of the ninth inning with Chris Shine on the mound for the Tigers. With two out, a Shine offering was belted deep to left center. Outfielder Connor Adams came charging toward centerfield but still had plenty of ground to make up when he dove with full extension to come up with the grab and make a play worthy of Sportscenter.
“I knew I was struggling at the plate a lot, I was going 0-for-4. So I saw it go up and I knew that it would’ve been a heartbreaker if it dropped and there was a man on second base, so I just put it all out there and went up for the ball. Came down with it,” Adams, the first player to record 40 hits in a season for South Plainfield since Aidan McDermott in 2014, said. “I just put it all out on the line because it could have been our last game and I didn’t want it to be.”
Guida called the grab “one of the best” outfield plays he’s seen.
“We’ve had some great outfielders in our nine years here, but that ranks up there. Especially in the situation that it was in, top of the ninth, two out, probably a for-sure double if that ball lands. That was a full extension lay out. Something I wish I could see again,” he said.