COLONIA, NJ - A spectacular diving stop at first base in the top of the seventh by Colonia High School’s Jason Hilenski was all that stood between the South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team and a dramatic game tying hit. Alas, that’s baseball, and the Tigers fell just short Tuesday evening in the second half of a home and home with the Patriots by a score of 3-2.
Down a run heading into the final frame, second baseman Roberto Gonzales led off with a dunk base hit up the middle and left fielder Connor Adams, who moved up to second in the order from ninth just one game prior, laid down one of his patented sacrifice bunts to advance Gonzales to second base. Colonia hurler Chris Michael was instructed from the Patriots dugout to intentionally walk shortstop Mike Stanczak to set up a two-on and one-out situation for centerfielder Dylan O’Connor.
The senior ripped a Michael pitch hard to the left of Hilenski and the first baseman dove and came up with the grounder, got up, and beat a frozen Stanczak to first base to end the game on a devastating double play.
“That’s a tough play. The ball was hit so hard, I didn’t get mad at Stanczak at all [for not getting back to first] because it’s the seventh inning and all that stuff,” said South Plainfield Head Coach Anthony Guida of the game’s final play. “We usually say to always get back on a line drive, but it was a tough play. I mean, [O’Connor] smoked the ball right to him,” he said.
“That’s three line drives to the first baseman in two days. He did it once in the fifth inning, but that’s the situation that happened and that’s baseball,” Guida said.
Pitcher Billy Keane made his first start of the season on the mound for the Tigers (3-1 overall, 2-1 in GMC White Division play), surrendering three runs on four hits and striking out five while walking two and hitting one other batter in four complete innings of work. He was relieved by sophomore Mikey Marrero, making his varsity pitching debut, in the bottom of the fifth inning. Marrero entered the game with his team down 3-1 and held his own by not allowing a run and only conceding three hits in two innings.
South Plainfield went to the batter’s box in the top of the first poised to recreate their first inning magic against Colonia from a day earlier when they scored four runs. Gonzales slammed the second pitch of the contest deep to the left centerfield gap for a triple. Gonzales would finish a gaudy 3 for 4 on the day. However, Colonia’s Michael found a way to stop the bleeding.
He picked off Adams at first and struck out Stanczak to get out of the jam.
Still, the Tigers like what they’re getting out of Gonzales, their leadoff hitter. “He’s a kid that’s a nice little sparkplug,” Guida said. “He gets on base and it’s nice to see him on base enough. He’s been good to watch and playing well.”
Gonzales had some familiarity with Michael from last season. Of the leadoff triple, Gonzales said he saw “a slow changeup and I knew it was in the perfect spot and took it to left field.”
Gonzales led off the inning in each of his four at bats, something that had never happened to him before. “That was my first time leading off every time on base so it was pretty good.”
Still scoreless in the bottom of the second, Colonia’s Anthony Palmisano hit a leadoff triple of his own to left and the Patriots would see to it that he reach home. Monday’s hard-luck pitcher Nick Nielson grounded a fielder’s choice to Stanczak who fired home to catcher Jared Marks to prevent Palmisano from scoring but the throw was late and the runner was called safe to put the Patriots up 1-0.
Ever resilient, the Tigers tied the game in the top half of the third. With Gonzales on second (he singled to right and was moved over on a sacrifice bunt by Adams), Stanczak tattooed an RBI grounds rule double to left center.
But the tie score was short lived. After two quick strikeouts in the bottom of the third, Keane appeared to lose the strike zone a bit and gave up three consecutive hits: an infield single to Frank Lehman (who then stole second), an RBI base hit to left by Michael and the game deciding RBI double down the left field line by Palmisano (who finished 3-3 at the plate). The score was now 3-1 and the work was cut out for the Tigers.
After both teams went silent in the fourth and fifth, South Plainfield crawled back into the game in the sixth. With runners on the corners and two outs, Tigers catcher Marks roped an RBI single to left center, scoring O’Connor and making the score 3-2.
Marrero put the Patriots down quick in the bottom of the sixth and the offense looked to tie it up in the seventh, but it was not to be.
Guida thought Keane put forth a performance that was “good enough for us to win.”
“There were a couple times where the ball got away from him, but we have a double header Thursday and play Saturday and we felt we might need some pitching so I took him out a little bit early but he threw OK,” Guida said of Keane.
“I felt good. All my pitches were working but they had timely hits,” Keane said of his day.
There were only a few things he would’ve changed if he could have the start back. “I would’ve attacked them more with the fastball early on. I hung a couple curves so I have to get my curve going, too,” he said.
But for the most part he liked his stuff. “Every pitch was pretty much on. I was a little wild later in the game but I was hitting my spots and getting early outs,” Keane said. He knows there are things he can build on moving forward.
“Just control. Hitting my spots and getting ahead in counts,” he said.
As for Marrero, the underclassman is not being eased whatsoever into his varsity career by Guida. He followed up a crucial RBI base hit at the plate on Monday with a solid outing on the hill Tuesday.
“It’s good to see. We have two infielders that are starters that pitch, too. So when they’re pitching he’s going to have to go in and get some innings, and again, with a lot of games this week we felt we needed to take Keane out and just give him some experience.”
The Tigers will play a Thursday double header. First they visit Montgomery at 11AM and then play a home makeup game vs. Sayreville at 4:00 PM.