NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ - Starting pitcher Billy Keane and the fourth-seeded South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team drew the short end of the stick during Wednesday afternoon’s 3-2 loss in extra innings to 12th-seeded Old Bridge at North Brunswick Community Park.

The defeat eliminated the Tigers (16-8) from contention in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament in the quarterfinal round. They are still in search of their first ever Middlesex tournament championship.

The Tigers will now focus on the NJSIAA state playoffs that commence Monday afternoon. South Plainfield drew a No. 2 seed in Group 2.

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Keane and Old Bridge starter Joe Papeo locked horns in the instant classic. Keane was taken out after the first batter in the top of the eighth inning reached base on an infield single with the score knotted at two.

Old Bridge would score the eventual game winning run later that inning with two on and two out off reliever Roberto Gonzalez when Papeo knocked a single to right-centerfield that was misplayed. Keane finished with a loss on two earned runs, five hits, seven strikeouts and one intentional walk. Papeo gave up only two runs on eight hits, nine strikeouts and four walks in seven and a third innings of work.

Down, 2-0, heading to the home half of the seventh inning, it seemed like the Tigers would go down silently against Papeo. But left fielder Connor Adams kept hope alive with a leadoff single down the right field line. The hit represented the only time South Plainfield put their leadoff hitter on base. Adams would steal second while catcher Jared Marks was at the plate, and he would reach third when Marks executed a sacrifice bunt to bring up shortstop Mike Stanczak. With one on and one out, Stanczak belted a dramatic game-tying two run home run over the left centerfield fence to force extra innings and set off a euphoric celebration at home plate.

As Stanczak toured the bases, he thought he had produced the spark that would lead to a birth in the semifinals.

“When we tied the game we felt good, we thought we were gonna win it,” Stanczak said.

“I told him we needed a base hit and we needed him to get on second base,” South Plainfield Head Coach Anthony Guida said of his shortstop’s approach. “He hit the baseball hard and drove it and the ball went out of here.”

Facing Papeo the fourth time around the order helped Stanczak anticipate a good pitch to hit. “I knew what he was going to throw me. And it was bound to happen because that first one I hit foul, I felt it,” he said.

The Stanczak homer would have loomed even larger had the Tigers been able to cash in for some runs with the bases loaded and only one out in the bottom of the sixth. Keane, Gonzalez and right fielder TJ Massaro hit consecutive base hits, but then Papeo got two strikeouts to escape the jam with the 2-0 lead in tact. “We started hitting the balls hard, but unfortunately we just couldn’t get this one,” Guida said.

The Knights made it 1-0 early in the third when Jalen Hernandez sent a solo homer to left field, one of Keane’s only mistakes of the contest. Old Bridge made it 2-0 in the sixth with the help of uncharacteristic South Plainfield fielding errors at third base and centerfield.

“We made our share of mistakes today. I think I can count five of them. Most of them didn’t hurt us. In the middle of the game one error hurt us, and another one in the last inning hurt us as well. It goes down as a hit but it was a mental mistake by one of our guys,” Guida said before adding, “but it’s never, ever, ever one play that makes us lose the game.”

“Unfortunately that’s the one that gave them their go-ahead run.”

Guida credited Old Bridge with throwing South Plainfield off their game. “One key to the game for [Old Bridge] is we weren’t able to get our leadoff guy on base until the seventh inning. Took us out of our game. That’s our game: when we get a leadoff guy on, we can do our thing. Unfortunately we couldn’t do that, but the one inning we did, we scored,” Guida said.

Keane was the biggest bright spot for the Tigers. “He did a great job. We wanted to give him an opportunity to go out there and maybe get a win, go out there in the eighth inning, and unfortunately the leadoff guy got on base. That’s just the way it goes,” said Guida.

“I think he pitched a gem. He did great. You can’t do anything better,” Stanczak said of his teammate.

“All my pitches were working, my slider was really on. I just incorporated that in, and I fixed a lot of my mechanical issues,” Keane said of his performance overall. He’s had some tough luck this season but proved himself yet again to be a reliable member of the rotation. Going against elite opposing pitchers always seems to bring out the best in the junior. “Yeah, definitely, I’ve been toe to toe with a couple good pitchers and I knew I could beat him, but…”

Keane thinks the disappointing elimination from the conference tournament could be a blessing in disguise. “I think it just fuels us. We’re going to perform well in states.”

“You know what? We have states still. We still have something to look for,” said Stanczak.

South Plainfield may find out its first opponent in the state playoffs as early as Thursday. Before the states begin, the Tigers will host Scotch Plains-Fanwood in their final regular-season game Friday at 3 p.m. (note the earlier start time).