SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - The South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team carried a fragile 3-2 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning against the Metuchen Bulldogs Monday afternoon in round one of the Greater Middlesex County Tournament. Before the inning was through the Tigers would jump out to a commanding 8-2 lead thanks to a leadoff solo home run by center fielder Dylan O’Connor and a pair of RBI squeeze bunts by right fielder TJ Massaro and third baseman Mikey Marrero.
South Plainfield would go on to win by a final score of 11-3 and advance to the tournament quarterfinals where they will square off with the Old Bridge Knights (who defeated Spotswood, 4-2 on Monday) at North Brunswick Community Park on May 17th at 4PM.
“We play Metuchen every year. I have a good relationship with their coach [Leo Danik]. He likes to play us and every time we’ve played them it’s been a close game, so I didn’t expect anything other than a close game. And that’s exactly what it was in the fifth inning,” South Plainfield Head Coach Anthony Guida said.
Metuchen had gotten to within one at 3-2 in the top of the fifth when Tigers starting pitcher Jean Sapini balked with a runner on third. South Plainfield would get the run back later that inning when O’Connor belted a homer straight down the left field line, just inside the foul pole, to set off a frenzied celebration with teammates when he came around to touch home plate. “The count was 3-2. I was just looking for something over the plate and I knew [Metuchen’s pitcher] was going to give me a fastball. I just turned on it and it went,” O’Connor would say after the game.
“He put a great swing on the ball,” Guida said of O’Connor’s solo blast. “Once he hit it, with the wind -- and it was windy at that time -- I said ‘that ball’s going to get out, let’s just hope it stays fair.’ We gave it a little body language, trying to get it in there and it got in. When I saw it hit a tree I was just like ‘oh please don’t call it foul’ and thankfully [the umpire] called it fair. He actually hesitated but he did call it fair so that’s great,” he said.
O’Connor himself wasn’t sure if the ball would stay fair. “Actually the wind I thought was going to take it foul, but it didn’t. We’re good,” he said with a smile. O’Connor looked like he was hitting beach balls out there, going 4 for 4. “It’s just a regular baseball,” he said. “I’m just trying to get my foot down, get my mechanics right, swing down on the ball and hopefully something happens.”
Later in the fifth with Tiger runners on the corners and only one out, Guida gestured for Massaro to lay down a squeeze bunt to get DH Roberto Gonzalez home from third. The play was executed to perfection and Massaro legged out a base hit to go along with his RBI. With the Bulldog third baseman charging in on the play, base runner Chris Shine had the presence of mind to advance from first to third to get in scoring position for the next batter, Marrero.
Marrero laid down another squeeze bunt to score Shine and make the score 6-2. Marrero reached base on a throwing error by the Metuchen pitcher towards first base that put runners on second and third.
“I just thought it was a great situation,” Guida said of the back-to-back bunts. “First pitch, I just thought it was a good time to do it with TJ at the plate. I knew he would be able to get it down. And then we had that situation coming up again and I said ‘let’s do it again.’”
Both Massaro and Marrero would score during the next at bat when a grounder by Connor Adams towards second found its way underneath a glove and rolled slowly into the outfield to give South Plainfield an 8-2 advantage. The play represented one of six errors on the day by the Bulldogs.
Guida certainly understands that every team has games where they struggle defensively and thinks nothing less of Metuchen for it. “We’ve been on that side of the field too many times,” he said. “I think we went almost around the whole lineup and there was still one out. We’ve been on that side and it’s good to be on the other side where we’re the ones scoring runs,” he said.
“And I’m real proud of the way our guys conducted themselves in that one inning and continued to just pour it on.”
Metuchen jumped out to an early 1-0 lead off Sapini in the top of the first on a Will Hronich RBI double deep to left center. The Tigers would respond in the bottom of the third with a pair of runs to take the lead, 2-1. Shortstop Mike Stanczak doubled down the third base line and O’Connor dropped in another double to shallow right field to put runners on second and third with one out for first baseman Billy Keane. One of the hottest hitters on the team, Keane continued his assault on opposing pitchers by ripping a two run single to right.
“A big hit right there. Gives us the lead, gives us a chance to take a breath,” Guida said. “It was definitely nice to get a couple runs on the board early, instead of it being the fifth inning and its 1-0 and we’re really starting to panic a bit.”
South Plainfield made it 3-1 in the fourth. With Marrero on third and two out, Stanczak sent a hot shot toward third base. The ball went in and out of a Metuchen glove before bouncing away and Marrero scored easily. Stanczak finished 2 for 4 with an RBI.
Already up 8-2, the final three Tiger runs in the sixth put the game far out of reach.
With the bases loaded and one out, Massaro sent a grounder to the right side that was scooped up by the Bulldog first baseman but the throw to second, to start a potential double play, was airmailed into left field and two runs scored on the play. Now with runners on first and second, Marrero made it 11-2 with an RBI single down the third baseline.
Metuchen made the score 11-3 in the top of the seventh off Gonzalez, who was relieving Sapini. Gonzalez would get a strikeout to end the contest and notch the first victory of the playoff season for the Tigers. The next tournament game can’t come soon enough for Guida and his team.
“It’s the first game and this is what we play for: Playing in May, trying to get to June still playing baseball games. The kids are excited about it. I thought the energy level was great. They’re really enjoying it,” he said.
Starter Jean Sapini got the win for the Tigers, fanning five and allowing only one earned run on four hits while walking three. He struck out the side in the second inning. Sapini struggled late in his last outing on May 8 vs. Morristown so it was important for the South Plainfield ace to put forth a good performance Monday as each game down the stretch is more important than the last.
Metuchen did their best to keep Sapini off rhythm, stepping out of the box and fouling off many pitches. He battled through it, though.
“I was able to get through it. I think I was just struggling with myself, trying to settle down and make sure I was throwing good strikes because I was leaving the ball up a lot, so I just had to work through that throughout the game,” Sapini said.
“Just going forward I need to find more consistency because sometimes I looked good, other times I was all over the place.”