CRANFORD - For over six innings it looked like the South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team would be the hard luck losers in the 2015 North 2 Group III Sectional Final against a very skilled Cranford Cougars team that had a championship pedigree. All afternoon long, the Tigers squandered chance after chance with runners in scoring position. Going into their last at bat in the top of the seventh down 2-0, South Plainfield knew it was now or never.
Senior catcher Chris Marrero drew a base on balls to start the frame off right for the Tigers. He reached second on a successful bunt attempt by designated hitter Kyle Dickerson. With two on and no outs, first baseman LJ Scarpitto also laid down a well-placed bunt which forced a hurried throw and an error at first base. Jake Hoffman, pinch running for Marrero, scored to bring South Plainfield within one run. Dickerson and Scarpitto advanced on the play.
“Chris Marrero getting that leadoff walk in the seventh was huge,” said South Plainfield Head Coach Anthony Guida. “I told Kyle (Dickerson) to try and bunt for a hit, and that push bunt to second for a hit was all on him. It was a great play.”
Again with two runners on and no outs, second baseman Bryan Gillen singled between the third baseman and shortstop. The hit scored Dickerson, tied the game, and set off a wild celebration in the stands alongside first base where the Tiger supporters were stationed.
The Tigers failed to take the lead that inning, but junior pitcher Jake Alba (who entered the game in relief of Vinny Pellegrino in the 5th) shut the door on any hopes of a Cranford walk-off win. He recorded a strikeout and got two groundouts to shortstop Nick Polizzano to give the offense another crack at taking the lead.
“Polizzano charging the ball at short, and making those plays was just great.” Said Guida.
The fateful inning got off to a rough start for the Tigers, with the first two batters grounding out. But then Dickerson worked a walk. With Scarpitto at the plate, Dickerson turned on the jets and swiped second base. Cranford’s pitcher threw a wild pitch that allowed Dickerson to take third. Scarpitto hit the ball sharply to second but the Cranford second baseman got tangled up and the ball went through his legs, scoring the eventual winning run in Dickerson that made the score 3-2.
“I was just looking to hit the ball hard like Coach Guida says,” said Scarpitto. “I wanted to hit the ball hard on the ground.”
But the rally was still not done. Scarpitto also stole second which left first base open while Gillen was at the plate. Cranford decided to walk Gillen intentionally. With runners on first and second and Captain Chris Graves at the plate, a passed ball got by the catcher advancing the runners. Again, with first base open, Cranford wanted to walk Graves intentionally.
Polizzano stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs and watched another wild pitch roll to the backstop. Scarpitto read the play perfectly and slide into home plate head first, extending the South Plainfield lead to 4-2.
With just three outs left to win a Sectional Title, there was debate about who would try to close out the game, but an emotional Alba lobbied hard to be Head Coach Anthony Guida’s (Middlesex County coach of the year) choice.
Alba was sent back out for the bottom of the eighth and got two ground outs to Graves at third base and a fly ball that settled into the mitt of Polizzano that gave the Tigers their long sought after championship.
For most of the game Cranford seemed to be cruising towards another Sectional Title. It appeared the Cougars would need no more than their first inning run to win. Cranford scored in the bottom of the first inning on a leadoff walk to Garrett Forrestal and an RBI single by Patrick Knight. Knight, however, was picked off first base to help stymie what may have been a bigger Cranford rally. The Cougars had a number of miscues on base and in the field that South Plainfield took advantage of as the game progressed. “Congratulations to South Plainfield,” said Cranford Coach Dennis McCaffery. “It was a gritty performance by them and they battled all day.”
Senior Vinny Pellegrino, along with Alba, was the unsung hero of the game. Pellegrino started and struck out one while scattering five hits. He left the game after allowing the first two Cougar batters to reach base to start the bottom of the fifth. When he was hooked, they only trailed by one. A wild pitch by Alba with two on and no outs made the score 2-0 in Cranford’s favor, but it was smooth sailing for Alba soon after that. Alba struck out four before his day was done.
“We are always in it,” said South Plainfield Senior Kyle Dickerson. “We don’t stop competing until the last out has been made.”
“What a feeling this is” said South Plainfield Coach Guida. “I’m just so proud of the kids. They never thought this game was over.”
The Tigers, with their first Sectional Title under their belts in 40 years, now face off against Mt. Olive at Kean University on Tuesday, June 2nd for the North Jersey Group Three championship.