UNION — Union’s Zach Fernandez and Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s Danny Wilkinson have been the two best pitchers in Union County this season. So when the two major Division I commits square off against each other in the same game, it becomes a must-watch event.
When they met for the first time back in 2018, each took a shutout into the eighth inning before Scotch Plains pulled out a 1-0 win. Saturday — over a year later and with the stakes much higher — they met again.
With a trip to the Union County Tournament (UCT) semifinal on the line, Villanova-bound Wilkinson out-dueled Rhode Island commit Fernandez, allowing no fewer than one hit (pending official scoring decision) to No. 3-seeded Union, striking out eight and walking just one in the seven complete innings. That allowed No. 6 Scotch Plains-Fanwood to upset the Farmers, 1-0. Fernandez was nearly as dominant, allowing just one run in seven innings, but Scotch Plains’ second inning run was the difference.
That lone run came on Chris Smith’s second inning RBI double to plate Tyler Stines, who also doubled.
Opposing Fernandez for the second time in less than a month, Scotch Plains-Fanwood had its work cutout. Fernandez had not allowed an earned run against the Raiders since before that April 19, 2018 afternoon he and Wilkinson first met. And after throwing a clean first inning Saturday, Fernandez extended that streak to 18 1/3 innings.
“Coming out here, I’m expecting a 1-0 or a 2-1 game with those two pitchers,” Higgins said. “Fernandez is a great pitcher and a tough competitor, and he’s a smart pitcher.”
But Scotch Plains-Fanwood finally solved the stud righty in the second. Tyler Stines doubled to right with one out, then scored when hot-hitting Chris Smith traded placed with Stines on a two-out, RBI double.
Smith is now hitting .364 through his first 22 varsity at-bats. Stines’ double was his team-leading sixth of the season.
“Fernandez came out mowing us down,” Higgins said. “Three in a row, he struck out our two, three, four hitters, and he looked really good. But Stines and Smith got good swings on him.”
Other than a Johnny Ramos double in the third and Josh Canavan fifth inning single, Fernandez (7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 5 K, 2 BB) was exactly as advertised, cruising through the Raiders’ lineup. But with Wilkinson toeing the same rubber slab, that second inning run was all that mattered.
Union certainly was alive against Wilkinson, but painfully for the Farmers, those opportunities were squandered by questionable calls. After reaching first base in the second inning, Andrew Sanborn attempted to steal second and appeared to reach base before he was called out, much to Union’s dismay. Likewise, in the third, courtesy runner Quincy Mitchell appeared to slide into third well ahead of a throw, but he too was called out.
With umpiring not on its side, the task was even harder for Union, already faced with Wilkinson dealing in a grove. Wilkinson retired the side in order in the first, fourth, and fifth, and faced just three over the minimum on the afternoon. Most of his damage on the mound at LeMatty Field was done with an upper-80s fastball and devastating curveball.
“I just felt great — everything was working,” said Wilkinson, who expressed he was eager to face Fernandez again. “Location was working, speed was working, and my curveball was working. I think I even only threw one changeup, and that was to the first batter of the game, but everything was just working.”