SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Junior pitcher Billy Keane was the story of the game both offensively and defensively for the #2 seeded South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team as they came from behind to narrowly defeat the tenth-seeded Matawan Huskies, 2-1, in the second round of the Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs Wednesday evening.

Keane got his team on the board and tied the game at 1-1 with a double to right centerfield in the bottom of the sixth as part of a rally that saw the Tigers (18-9) score the game’s eventual winning run. Keane equally dazzled on the pitching rubber, allowing just one unearned run in the top of the sixth, while scattering five hits and striking out three to earn the complete game victory. He walked none.

The team awaits the winner of Thursday’s contest between #3 Spotswood and #6 Vorhees. The third round game will be played in South Plainfield next Tuesday, May 30th.

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Heading into the bottom of the sixth down 1-0, and with their season on the line, the Tigers knew it would be a great time to get their leadoff batter on base for the first time all day. They did just that when center fielder Dylan O’Connor laid down a bunt toward third base that was bobbled by Matawan pitcher Jake Burlew for an error. O’Connor would swipe second base to get into scoring position for Keane, who remained red-hot when he drilled a 3-2 offering over the right fielder’s head to tie the game.

The game-tying hit released a lot of tension in the South Plainfield dugout. After all, the Tigers stranded runners on second and third in both the bottom of the second and third innings. “There was a lot of relief getting that hit. And I knew that after that, we were going to string something together, and we ended up scoring again,” Keane said. He knew what kind of pitch to look for with a full count. “3-2, I was just sitting anything close. Anything close I was going to swing hard and put a good swing on it. Luckily it fell.”

“What I love is we try to get guys on base any way we can,” Tigers Head Coach Anthony Guida said. “Dylan tried to bunt for a base hit, and, you know, they made a mistake. That mistake gave us an opportunity. Dylan steals second and then, with Billy, I noticed they were playing shallow all game. My first thought was we want to bunt him over to second, but Billy’s not the best bunter. And he did exactly what I was hoping he’d do; he put the ball over the right fielder’s head. Thankfully Dylan stole the base and was able to score on a double,” he said.

Keane’s double knocked Burlew out of the game for Matawan after pitching into the sixth. South Plainfield inserted speedster Ricky Pellegrino on second base to run for Keane while Huskies reliever John Carelli warmed up on the mound. Tiger second baseman Roberto Gonzalez laid down a sacrifice bunt for the first out to move Pellegrino to third.

Things got dicey when right fielder TJ Massaro stepped up to the plate. Guida called for a squeeze bunt early in the at-bat and as Pellegrino broke for home, Massaro never squared to bunt. Fortunately for South Plainfield Massaro fouled the pitch off. “It was a squeeze and TJ didn’t get the sign and I was coming home, and he scared me, man,” Pellegrino said. “My life flashed before my eyes.”

Later in the at-bat, Massaro hit a slow grounder to first base and Pellegrino again charged hard for home plate, sliding in safely ahead of an offline throw to give his team a 2-1 lead. “When he hit that ball to first base I just knew I had to hustle. As fast as I am, I had to get there,” Pellegrino said. “It was close. I was even scared to go myself but I was like, ‘You’ve got to go,’ and right when [the umpire] said ‘Safe’ it was unbelievable. Like ‘Jeez, I can’t even believe I just did that.’”

Guida knows they could have run themselves out of the inning. “I just couldn’t believe TJ didn’t put the bunt down. I put the sign on and he swings. And I kind of yelled at him, and that’s not me to do that. But the pressure of the game did that. I talked to him afterwards and he did the job, put the ball in play, they made another mistake, they threw the ball wide at home plate, and we scored another run,” Guida said.

Keane would make the second run stand up when he worked a 1-2-3 seventh inning to clinch the victory. He forced the Huskies into ten groundouts, including two double plays. It was his second straight outstanding pitching performance against fierce opponents (He pitched into the eighth inning of a 3-2 loss to Old Bridge in the GMC tournament on May 17). “All my stuff was working. I was pitching to contact, and I’ve got to give it all to my fielders because they made great plays out there,” Keane said. Going the distance meant a lot to him. “Oh yeah, I wanted to stay out there the whole time. There was no way that they were going to take me out of that game,” Keane said.

Guida thought #25 was “Absolutely excellent.”

“The kid pitched against Old Bridge and then again today with absolutely no run support and he kept us in the game. I mean, he pitched two fantastic games. Their hits today were softly hit. They were hit right in the hole. We got a couple double plays which are a pitcher’s best friend, but man, he was on last game, he was on today. I’m just so proud that he was able to get the win today, and that’s big. He’s had some tough losses with no run support and thankfully today we scored enough to get him a win. He pitched excellent and I’m very proud of him,” Guida said.

Pitching with little margin for error all season might be something Keane can draw upon down the stretch, according to Guida. “It really makes you feel comfortable to know he can pitch in some pressure situations and get us out of jams. It was nice to see. If he gets on the mound again, he’s been in this situation,”

The only run Keane allowed to Matawan loomed large at the time because it broke a 0-0 tie in the top of the sixth. With a runner on third and two outs, a grounder was booted for an error at third base to put the Huskies up 1-0. “It was frustrating but I tried to remain confident because I knew the next inning we were going to score more runs,” Keane said.

If Matawan was the tenth seed, the Tigers know they’ll be in for an even harder test, come next week. “Absolutely, this is the time when you want to start playing good teams and you want to start playing good innings and pitch well. This is what baseball’s all about. I’m really happy with how we came out today and won a game,” Guida said.

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Talkin’ About Practice:

South Plainfield would have loved to give their pitcher more run support, but the good news is they have plenty of time to work on it before Tuesday.

“We’re going to practice again tomorrow, that’s all we have to do,” Guida said. “We’re going to have to come in and stress something the kids have heard me say a million times: Put the ball in play, chop down on the baseball. We talk about Derek Jeter. His practice swings looked like he was chopping wood. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

A few players offered their own remedies for getting better. “Definitely a lot of batting practice. Work on hitting strikes and the ball hard on the ground, putting the ball in play,” Keane said.

“I feel like we have to start hitting more, have to get the balls on the ground, more line drives,” Pellegrino said. “We have to stop worrying about hitting pop-ups and then go from there. Our pitching staff is good, Jared [Marks] is doing a lot behind the plate, keeping the team in order, so we just have to hit.”