BERKELY HEIGHTS, NJ - The South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team’s thrilling run in the NJSIAA playoffs came to a heartbreaking conclusion Friday evening against Governor Livingston in the Central Jersey Group 2 sectional final. The #2 seeded Tigers (19-10) took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning over the top seeded Highlanders (26-3) and got to within one out of the title only to fall 6-5 after a walk-off three run double to left center by Gov. Livingston’s Dan Baroff ended the contest. The hit with the bases loaded came against South Plainfield starting pitcher Billy Keane, who was bidding for a gritty complete game victory.

“We wanted to go with our best and [Keane] was pitching a gem. I’m proud of him, and I wouldn’t change anything,” South Plainfield Head Coach Anthony Guida said of sticking with his starter into the last inning.

Keane finished with six runs charged against him on 11 hits. He struck out three and only had one intentional walk to his name. He forced eight groundouts including two beautifully turned double-plays by the infield defense behind him.

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Guida saw no reason to go to the bullpen based on what he saw from Keane in his first six innings on the hill. “I mean, we could have, we had someone ready, but I wanted him to finish,” Guida said. “And I thought he could finish. With that matchup with that lefty [Baroff], he pitched well against him all game.”

The Tigers watched Governor Livingston celebrate from inside their dugout and it was probably hard for anyone to see a silver-lining immediately following such a hard loss. But the South Plainfield baseball program is stocked with young talent on the varsity, JV, freshman and middle school levels, and the Tigers may very well have even greater playoff successes in the years to come. “Yeah, but we’ve got to win when we can,” Guida said. “This was the year to win, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

South Plainfield opened the scoring in the top of the first when a Keane RBI base hit to left field plated Connor Adams to put the Tigers up 1-0. The Highlanders responded with two runs in the home half of the first via an RBI triple deep to center by Dan Serretti and a run-scoring single by Stephen Reid.

In the top of the third, the Tigers took a lead that they would hold until the last play of the game. Shortstop Mike Stanczak singled to left field to bring power hitting centerfielder Dylan O’Connor up to the plate with one on and one out. O’Connor launched a Vin Doren offering well over the left field fence for a two run homerun that gave South Plainfield a 3-2 lead.

Keane and Doren stymied hitters on both squads until the Tigers broke through for two more runs in the top of the sixth to go up 5-2.

A strange play to begin the inning occurred when second baseman Roberto Gonzalez lofted a fly ball to left field that was caught but then dropped, allowing Gonzalez to reach second base. Highlander coaches contended to the umpires that the ball was dropped during the transfer from glove to throwing hand, but to no avail. With Gonzalez in scoring position, right fielder TJ Massaro placed a sacrifice groundout to the left side of the infield that advanced Gonzalez to third base. First baseman Jean Sapini drew a walk to put runners on the corners, and then South Plainfield put on a clinic in world-class bunting.

Guida instructed third baseman Mikey Marrero to lay down a squeeze bunt and the sophomore placed it perfectly along the first baseline for a single that scored Gonzalez and put runners on first and second. Adams followed up Marrero with another well-placed bunt single to load the bases, and catcher Jared Marks laid down his own sacrifice squeeze bunt to score Ricky Pellegrino, pinch-running for Sapini.

Governor Livingston got one back, to get within 5-3, in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI base hit to right field by Nick Cocchia with one on and two out.

South Plainfield couldn’t add any more insurance runs in the top of the seventh and the team was done in just one half-inning later on the bases clearing extra base hit by Baroff.

No one wanted the season to come to end just yet, and not like this. “Yeah, but I’m proud of the kids, they played real hard,” Guida said.

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THANK YOU, TIGERS:

On behalf of TAPinto, this fledgling journalist would like to take the time to thank everyone involved in the South Plainfield High School baseball community for their time and for helping me to obtain any piece of information I may have needed to produce these game recaps all season long.

Much credit is owed to Lian Rodriguez Marrero for beautifully and dramatically capturing so much of what was described in these articles through the lenses of her camera.

Thank you to Mak Ojutiku for filling in and doing a wonderful job when I wasn’t able to cover a game.

But most of all, a huge thank you is in order to all of the Tiger players and coaches, especially Head Coach Anthony Guida for teaching me how to properly fold an American flag and for granting me unprecedented access for interviews after each and every game, whether it was a win or a loss, a good time or a bad time. It was a pleasure talking about the game we all love and the team we all love.