ISELIN, NJ – The South Plainfield High School varsity baseball team withstood a five run Iselin Kennedy comeback and used bunting and base running to squeeze out the winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning, as the Tigers earned a 6-5 win in game two of Saturday’s double header to complete the sweep of the Mustangs.
Dressed in road grays, the Tigers were actually the home team at Iselin Kennedy’s field for game two (South Plainfield’s varsity field was in too poor condition to host the game after rain on Friday).
A two out, bases loaded walk by Mustangs first baseman Jordy Mora against reliever Mikey Marrero tied the game at 5-5 in the top of the sixth. Marrero got out of the bases loaded jam with the score still tied when he got the next batter, third baseman Hakim Hamer, to pop up back to the pitcher’s mound.
With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Tigers right fielder Ricky Pellegrino stepped up to the plate against reliever Vivek Patel sporting rainbow colored soccer cleats on JFK’s turf field and gently placed a slow rolling bunt down the third base line. Mustang catcher Lou Truppa fielded the ball and misfired to first, allowing the speedy Pellegrino to advance to second. Then, sparkplug left fielder Connor Adams legged out a bunt base hit of his own to put runners at the corners.
With two outs and shortstop Mike Stanczak at the plate, the umpire called a rare balk on Patel, and Pellegrino was waved home to give South Plainfield the eventual winning run.
For Pellegrino, it was his second run scored of the game off his second bunt base hit of the game (his other came in the second inning). He also attempted to bunt in the third but was thrown out at first. “I get told before games that my main thing is to bunt down the third baseline,” Pellegrino said. “And I know that a lot of the players, they usually come cover [against the bunt] but some of them will leave it all open. And with my speed I can beat anything out of the infield,” he said.
Bunting has become a calling card for the ninth hitter in the Tigers order.” I’m not that big of a swinger but when it comes to bunting, it just comes natural,” Pellegrino said.
His eye-popping cleats were what the buzz was about after the game. “I’m happy he wore them,” South Plainfield Head Coach Anthony Guida said. “He came off the bus and he was just wearing turfs and I’m like ‘Don’t you play soccer?’ and he’s like ‘Yeah,’ so I said ‘Well, where’s your soccer shoes?’”
“Thankfully his parents brought them and everyone knew Ricky was here,” Guida joked.
“Honestly, I was wearing my other sneakers in the beginning and I was like ‘They’re too heavy,’” Pellegrino said. “So I texted my parents and they brought my soccer cleats. Took a solid eight ounces off, felt good,” Pellegrino said.
South Plainfield didn’t think they would need late game dramatics when they jumped on Kennedy starter Mike Matusz and went up 5-0 lead after two innings.
With runners on the corners and one out in the top of the first, centerfielder Dylan O’Conner put down a perfect RBI sacrifice squeeze bunt to score pinch runner TJ Massaro and move Stanczak from first to second. With one on and two out, first baseman Billy Keane roped an RBI single to left to give South Plainfield a 2-0 lead. Keane has been hot at the plate and finished 2 for 3 with an RBI in each game of the double header.
The Tigers tacked on three more runs in the second. Third baseman David Tavarez slammed a double deep to left to begin the frame and Pellegrino’s first bunt base hit of the game put runners on the corners with nobody out. Tavarez would score on an RBI sacrifice groundout to third by Adams, and Pellegrino moved to second.
Kennedy’s Matusz would leave the game with an apparent injury and was relieved by Richard Rojas. Pellegrino stole third with catcher Jared Marks at the plate and scored when Marks pounded a ground ball to the shortstop. The fielder’s choice throw home was late, Marks was safe at first, and South Plainfield was up 4-0. Massaro would come into the game again as the courtesy runner for Marks and promptly stole second base. Still with one out, Stanczak blasted an RBI double to the left centerfield gap to put his team up by five.
Like the first game, South Plainfield’s advantage on the base paths proved to be a difference. “We have enough team speed and bunting skill that we’d like to put pressure on any team but we felt the need to just put the pressure on them. It was a game we had to win, and our guys had taken to that game plan,” Guida said.
“We worked on it in practice. Sometimes you struggle in a game and you get to practice the next day saying ‘Alright, what are we struggling on?’ We worked on taking our leads, we worked on getting jumps,” Guida said. “So working on what we did in practice, stealing third base, kind of came out today and it worked for us.”
Tiger starter Roberto Gonzalez sailed through the first two innings but conceded two runs in the top of the third on a two run double down the right field line by Mora.
Iselin Kennedy made it 5-4 two innings later on a walk with the bases loaded and a passed ball. Gonzalez was relieved before the top of the sixth and finished with seven strikeouts, three walks and five hits allowed. Marrero pitched the sixth and O’Connor closed the game out in the seventh with a strikeout of Tyler Sharfetz.
O’Connor was helped by an outstanding defensive play at third by Tavarez earlier in the seventh. JFK’s Anthony Shirley placed a bunt down the third base line with one out and Tavarez came hard charging and threw off balance to first to get the runner. “I looked up and just tried to make a good throw and that’s it. It saved the game because if I didn’t make that throw maybe they would’ve had a good run,” Tavarez said of the play.
With the win, South Plainfield improved to 13-6 overall on the season. They have now concluded play against GMC White Division opponents with an 8-4 record including sweeps of Iselin Kennedy and Sayreville. They won their home games and lost on the road to each of Colonia, North Brunswick, Piscataway and Woodbridge.
The White Division championship will be decided Monday afternoon when Woodbridge (8-3) plays North Brunswick. If North Brunswick can topple Woodbridge, then the Tigers and the Barrons would end up division co-champions with identical 8-4 records. But if Woodbridge wins, they will win the division title outright at 9-3. South Plainfield last shared a division co-championship with Monroe in 2015 before going on to win the sectional, group and state titles.
Seeding for the conference tournament will be voted on Tuesday morning at Monroe High School.
Guida wishes he could have a mulligan for the losses at North Brunswick and Piscataway but is happy with his team’s divisional record nonetheless.
“I think 8-4 is a great record. But I do feel that we could have won a few more of those games that we lost. I know with Piscataway, when you’re winning 7-0 against anybody you figure you would come out with a win. Piscataway didn’t just get in the dugout, sit down and hide, they knew there was a lot of baseball left and they came back and won that game. They won the game, we didn’t lose it. And the other one, North Brunswick, you have a two run lead with your ace on the mound, you figure you can win that,” Guida said.
“So, Colonia beat us in a good game and Woodbridge beat us. We had opportunities in both, but [North Brunswick & Piscataway] are the two games that I think hurt us. It would have been nice…if we win those two games, it would be a different story,” Guida said. “But we learned from them and that’s the key to baseball. You can’t win them all, but when you don’t you have to learn from them. I like where we are at 8-4, we’ll see what happens Tuesday.”
South Plainfield now heads to the home of the Somerset Patriots, TD Bank Ballpark on Monday night to faceoff with the Morristown Colonials. “The kids enjoy it; I enjoy playing that game, the parents like it, the fans like it. It’s always something we really look forward to,” Guida said of playing in the professional stadium.