SPARTA, NJ- After squandering a four-run lead going into the seventh inning and now trailing Northern Highlands 9-7, it appeared the Sparta baseball team’s season would come to a stunning end.
That is, until cleanup hitter Austin Unglaub rescued the cause with his bat and punched Sparta’s ticket into the sectional semifinals.
The junior’s two-run single with the Spartans down to their last out but with two men in scoring position elevated Sparta to a dramatic 10-9 victory over Northern Highlands in the NJSIAA North I, Group III quarterfinal round on a Memorial Day matinee at Cassels Field. The Sussex County squad has little time to celebrate, as they have a very quick turnaround, traveling to Paramus on Tuesday afternoon for the semifinals.
“Going into that at bat, my goal was to clear the infield. I knew if I just did that, we were going to win,” said Unglaub after the game. “I got a good pitch to hit and got it over the shortstop.”
Down two runs, Sparta was able to load the bases, aided by singles from pinch-hitter Grant Hagedorn and Thomas Ruddy with only one away. Highlanders closer Mike Portanova induced a groundball from Matt Chemis, but now before scoring pinch-runner Jake Davis, cutting the lead to 9-8 Highlands.
Three-hitter T.J. Estanislau drew a walk to reload the bases, bringing Unglaub to the plate for his winner.
“(Austin) has been our go to guy all year, he’s exactly who we would have wanted in that situation and try to win it for us,” said Sparta head coach Sam Slobodzian.
Through six innings, it looked like Sparta, which improved to 17-8-1 on the campaign, would secure the victory without the dramatics of the seventh inning.
Northern Highlands opened up the scoring second, when Vin Masters made the Spartans pay for a throwing error on a Garrett McGovern groundball, drilling a line-drive home run over the right field wall for a quick 2-0 lead.
Sparta would quickly respond with three of their own in the bottom half of the stanza. Sean Dilger doubled, Peter Forman walked, and both took two bases when a pickoff attempt by Northern Highlands (13-13-1) went astray. A pair of RBI singles from pitcher Kevin Foulds and Ruddy gave Sparta a 3-2 lead after two.
Tied at three in the fifth, Dilger doubled for a third time in this game and came around to score a batter later when Forman singled him home.
“The ball just kept dropping out there in right field and I was able to hustle out to doubles and get a ground-rule one the third time,” Dilger said.
In the sixth, one-out doubles from Ruddy and Chemis extended the home team’s lead to 5-3. Estanislau walked, which was promptly followed by a double steal, setting up another two-RBI single from Unglaub (2 for 5, 4 RBI) and giving the Spartans a comfortable 7-5 lead with three outs left for Highlands.
But the Bergen County crew had no intentions of letting its long bus ride go to waste. A Masters walk followed by four straight Highlander base hits instantly saw the Spartans comfortable lead turn into 7-4 with the bases loaded and nobody out.
Newly inserted Sparta relief pitcher Drew Garger got Joe Cenci to hit a routine ground ball, but a Spartan fielding error allowed all runners to be safe, cutting the lead to one with bases loaded and still no one out. A base hit from Rob Hinchen and a sacrifice fly from Brian Sciortino capped the Highlanders' surprising rally.
But well-placed clutch base hits, coupled with the hustle that led to a pair of infield singles, gave Sparta the chance to extend the season one more day.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I’m happy for not just us seniors but the whole team because we are going to keep on playing,” said Dilger.
Added Unglaub: “We thought we were good up 7-3 heading into the seventh. But they’re a good team and deserve the credit for coming back, but we did the same with our chance. That’s baseball.”
The box score:
Northern Highlands (13-13-1): 0 2 1 0 0 0 6- 9
Sparta (17-8-1): 0 3 0 0 1 3 3- 10
Runs: (NH) John Hinchen 2, Joe Cenci, Matt Dipasupil, Chris Maita, Vin Masters, Vin Messina, Garrett McGovern, Chris Nardone. (S) Sean Dilger 2, Thomas Ruddy 2, Matt Chemis, T.J. Estanislau, Jake Davis, Peter Forman, Kevin Foulds, Nick Shlala.
RBI: (NH) Vin Masters 2, John Hinchen 2, Rob Hinchen, Chris Maita, Garrett McGovern. (S) Austin Unglaub 4, Matt Chemis 2, Peter Forman, Kevin Foulds, Thomas Ruddy.
HR: (NH) Vin Masters
2B: (S) Sean Dilger 3, Matt Chemis 2, Thomas Ruddy
WP: (S) Drew Garger LP: (NH) Mike Portanova