WARREN, NJ — The Ridge and Watchung Hills baseball teams endured two lightning delays Wednesday afternoon, even though there wasn't a drop of rain during either one of those interruptions.
There was, however, plenty of thunder, and a lot of that came during the game from the Ridge bats, which racked up 15 hits, almost half of those for extra bases, as the Red Devils slugged their way to a 15-4 victory over Watchung Hills in the semifinal round of the Section 2, Group 4 tournament.
Ridge (13-10) will visit Franklin (14-5) for the sectional championship Friday afternoon in a final matchup that likely no handicappers would have had if they'd filled out a bracket sheet.
But Ridge is playing its best baseball of the season right now. Wednesday's victory was the Red Devils' fifth in a row, and their eighth win in their last nine games. Ridge began the season with a 1-5 record that included a seventh-inning loss to Watchung Hills on the road.
Tommy Casale went 2-for-3 with a solo home run, a double, and two runs for Watchung Hills (16-9). Lorenzo Meola, John King and Martin Howell had RBIs for the Warriors.
Mike Olivo went 3-for-5 with five RBI, including a two-run homer, and George Busnach was 3-for-5 with one RBI for Ridge, which appeared to break the game open with six runs in the top of the fourth inning to take a 9-2 lead. Ridge crushed five extra-base hits in that inning alone: A leadoff double by Busnach, a two-run double by Brian Leitz, Olivo's two-run home run to right field and back-to-back line-drive doubles to left by Mike Barth and Cameron Mays.
But Watchung Hills came back with two runs in the bottom of the fourth, and threatened to score many more. The bases were loaded with two out and Ridge starter Will O'Malley struggling to escape an inning he should have been out of before back-to-back errors on the infield extended the frame. Watchung Hills batter Martin Howell drilled a line drive toward the gap in right-center with two out that looked like it would clear the bases.
Barth, in right field, took off on the dead run toward right-center, left his feet, dove and made a fully extended, inning-ending, possibly season-saving catch that looked like Ron Swoboda's bases-loaded catch in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series (it's searchable on YouTube).
"The momentum was not going our way at that point, and it would be nice there to get the momentum back," Barth said of his catch. "Being in such a big spot as that, I had no other option but to go all out for it. (Before this year), I normally played either right field or center field, but those two guys (LF Leitz and CF Olivo) are both faster than me. When I dove for it, I knew Mike had my back."
Olivo, from his perch in center field, wasn't so sure things would turn out so well when Howell first hit the would-be gapper.
"It looked to me like he took a bad angle toward that ball," Olivo said. "Well, it turned out Mike took a perfect angle. He laid out and put his body on the line there."
"To make that kind of catch in that spot," Ridge head coach Tom Blackwell said, "if the ball goes to the wall, three runs score for sure, and it's a 9-7 game. What a great effort by Mike."
Olivo, in addition to his five runs batted in, also stabilized the pitching situation after the second lightning delay, coming in to pitch 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Ridge, meanwhile, had scored two more runs in the fifth inning on Olivo's two-run single. The Red Devils scored four runs in the top of the seventh, and Vince Taylor pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh to close out the game.
Ridge has scored 39 runs in its last five games after struggling at the plate earlier in the season.
"Some of the guys were getting more tee work and putting in more time in the cages, and I think we have a lot more confidence in how we're swinging the bat now," Barth said.
"We hit our stride," Olivo said, "and we're playing well at the right time."
"Early in the season, we were 0-7 in games decided by three runs or less," Blackwell said. "Now, instead of finding ways to lose games, we're finding ways to win."
Blackwell praised O'Malley's efforts on the mound early in the game and Olivo's and Taylor's performances on the hill later in the game.
"We have plenty of arms ready to go on Friday, now, too," Blackwell said. "Everybody but Will is eligible to throw, and Olivo only threw 16 pitches, so he's got 110 in him if we need them from him on Friday.
Five pitchers took the mound for the Warriors: Jake Memoli( LP) Nick Maziekien, Shreyas Sekhar, Thomas Jova, and Ethan Paritz.
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