SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - The South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team ended its two-game losing skid just in time for the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs. The Tigers (17-9, seeded #2 in the tournament) rode a three-run first inning rally and 10 strikeouts by starter Jean Sapini to a resounding 8-1 victory at home over the 15th-seeded New Providence Pioneers Tuesday afternoon.

It was the first victory for the Tigers since defeating Metuchen, 11-3, in the first round of the GMC tournament on May 15.

Tigers head coach Anthony Guida thought his team got back to playing their game after two clunkers last week. “I think ‘back on track’ is exactly what I feel,” he said. “As soon as we won, I shook Coach Bautista’s hand and I said ‘that’s the first win in over a week.’ Our last win was here against Metuchen. Our last two losses were Old Bridge and Scotch Plains, so here we are a whole week later with a win. So it definitely was good to feel like we dominated a team,” Guida said.

Sign Up for E-News

After Sapini breezed through a six-pitch first inning, South Plainfield got right to work offensively. Leadoff hitter Connor Adams (4-for-4 with a walk, a stolen base, a run scored) found his way into scoring position on the first play of the game after legging out an infield base hit and benefiting from a throwing error towards first base. Team captain Jared Marks singled up the middle to put runners on the corners with no outs for Mike Stanczak. The Tiger shortstop belted an RBI double deep to right center to make it 1-0 just three batters into the game.

The Tigers got the monkey off their backs by jumping on New Providence early after scoring just three runs total against Old Bridge and Scotch Plains-Fanwood last week. “There’s no doubt,” Guida said. “In the first inning we get a guy in scoring position after one play. And we move him over and we’re in a situation where we can score runs, and I see [Stanczak’s] ball in the outfield and I’m going ‘good, alright, we got a run.’”

“So it was real nice to jump out on them early, without a doubt. Especially by the third batter of the game,” Guida said.

“That helped us a lot, helped Jean out on the mound to be more confident, and we just kept hitting the ball,” said Adams.

The team would tack on two more to go up, 3-0, later in the first on a one-out, bases-loaded RBI single to left field by second baseman Roberto Gonzalez and an RBI sacrifice fly to center by TJ Massaro.

The Tigers extended their lead to five runs in the bottom of the third on the strength of three doubles. Scorching hot first baseman Billy Keane led off with a smash down the right field line to knock out Pioneer starter Ryan Sherman, and Gonzalez took relief pitcher Dylan Bedder to the left field fence for an RBI double of his own. After Gonzalez swiped third, DH Chris Shine plated him with a double into the left field gap. Gonzalez would finish 2-for-3 with a run scored and two RBIs. Shine went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.

“It’s very good to see,” Guida said of the trio of doubles. “We try to emphasize putting the ball on the ground, putting the ball in an area where they’re going to have to make the play, but when you’re putting the ball in the air and putting it in the gaps and down the lines, that’s something else you like to see. So I thought we swung the bat really well.”

While the offense padded the lead, Sapini cruised on the hill. The ace of the staff fanned two in each of the third and sixth innings, and struck out the side in the top of the fifth on his way to the complete game victory. His only hiccup was a bloop RBI single to right with runners at the corners and one out in the away fourth.

Sapini would finish with one earned run against him off five hits (two of which were infield singles), 10 strikeouts and one walk. It was his third time reaching double-digit strikeouts this season, matching his team high. “I just felt I was completely dialed in,” Sapini said. “I mean, we were supposed to play [Monday], I got an extra day of rest. But my arm felt fantastic, like, the best it’s felt probably all year and I was just going out there and going after them.”

“I thought he was excellent. He does pitch a lot better when he’s got the lead, and you can see that he was hitting his spots,” Guida said of Sapini, who you can expect will be heavily relied upon if the team makes it deeper into the playoffs. “But with him on the mound and he’s throwing well and he’s got some run support, there’s no other better person we want on the mound than Jean.”

Finding consistency will be the key down the stretch for Sapini, a state champion two seasons ago. “I felt really relaxed today, more relaxed than I’ve been in other games. I was able to keep the ball down, so that’s going to be a big thing for me going forward, is making sure I’m keeping the ball down and locating,” Sapini said.

With runners at second and third in the bottom of the fifth, South Plainfield went back up five runs, at 6-1. Marks, the catcher, plated third baseman Mikey Marrero with a sacrifice groundout to first base. The final two runs came one inning later. Keane again led off an inning with a double, this time to right center. With two outs, Shine recorded his second RBI double to left. Marrero got Shine across home plate one batter later on a single to left center to make the score 8-1.

With seventeen total hits on the day, the entire South Plainfield lineup got in on the action. But no hitter during the last month, with the exception of Connor Adams, has been hotter than Billy Keane in the box. “I was just seeing it well. It looked like a beach ball coming in. I’m adjusting to off-speed really well and I’m hitting the fastball well. I’m just making good contact,” he said.

Keane has never experienced this kind of hot streak with the bat. “This year I really came into my shoes with hitting. I was never able to hit like this,” he said. Like Guida, he thinks power hitting mixed in with South Plainfield’s traditional small-ball tactics can only be an asset this time of year. “Hitting the ball hard in the gaps like this, I think, is going to help propel us to more wins in states,” Keane said.

Next up, the Tigers will host #10 seed Matawan in round 2. It is still to be determined if the game will be played on Wednesday or Thursday. “We’re trying to get the game in [Wednesday] because of the rain Thursday and Friday so hopefully we get to play tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes,” said Guida.