WESTFIELD, NJ — For his entire baseball life, Cory Hiltz has been a pitcher who becomes more effective as the game wears on.
And on a day when withering humidity might have just the opposite effect on most pitchers, the senior left-hander from Westfield grew tougher with each passing inning, finishing with a four-hitter to lift the top-seeded Blue Devils to a 4-2 victory over defending champion and second-seeded Millburn for the Section 2, Group 4 champion Friday afternoon.
Westfield will play Section 1, Group 4 champion Ridgewood Tuesday in the state Group 4 semifinal at a site to be announced.
Millburn (19-9) scored unearned runs in the first and third innings and built a 2-0 lead before Westfield embarked on its comeback, scoring a run in the third inning, two in the fourth and an insurance tally in the bottom of the sixth.
"That's been the story my whole life," Hiltz said of his tendency to finish strong. "I have always been able to get stronger as the game goes on."
Hiltz (8-0), who committed to Division 1 Monmouth University earlier in the week, retired the final 13 Millburn batters he faced. The lean southpaw threw a total of 86 pitches, struck out four and walked none.
"It is hard when the other pitcher is not giving you a lot of opportunities," Millburn coach Brian Chapman said of Hiltz. "He didn't give us any 'free 90s'."
"Cory didn't even have his best stuff," said Westfield coach Bob Brewster, in his 36th season. "But he did a good job of locating and changing speeds. He pitched a whale of a game."
"It is a pleasure catching Cory," said Westfield catcher Jake Vall-Llobera of Hiltz. "He'll never fatigue. He gives up two runs in the first three innings, but he will just chuck as many innings has he needs to."
Westfield (18-9) had the makings of a huge rally in the bottom of third but had to settle for a single run against Millburn right-hander Peter Gula, who hit Jack Cifelli and walked Steve Barden to start the inning before Matt McIntyre beat out a bunt to load the bases with nobody out. Andrew Caminiti followed with a sacrifice fly to right to drive in the first run, but Gula then retired the two feared lefty bats in the middle of the Blue Devil order to retire the side. Chris Wagner popped out to short and Jake Vall-Llobera flied out to deep center.
The first three Westfield batters of the fourth inning also reached base, but this time the Blue Devils cashed in more substantially. Jake Lerie led off with a line single to center, and Matt Manning rapped a hard grounder through the middle for another single. Millburn replaced Gula with big sophomore righty Ben Chrzanowski and Mike Knapp greeted him with a game-tying RBI single through the right side. Cifelli's grounder to shortstop resulted on a force out at second, but when Millburn's second baseman threw wildly on the relay to first base, Manning scored to give Westfield a 3-2 lead.
Westfield had a chance to score more, but with two out, McIntyre's ground ball was fielded with a nifty backhanded grab by Gula — now playing shortstop — who threw to first in time for the out.
Westfield's final run in the sixth inning came after Manning, who was 2-for-3, singled to center with one out. Knapp, also 2-for-3, singled up the middle and, with two out, pinch-hitter Matt Barmakian beat out a ground ball in the hole between shortstop and third base for a single that drove in Manning. McIntyre threatened to break the game wide open, but his deep fly ball was caught against the right field fence by Millburn's Ben Sinins to end the inning.
Vall-Llobera came up with a critical defensive play in the third inning. Millburn, already ahead, 1-0, opened the third with No. 9 hitter Matt Knowles cracking a double to left-center. With Jordan Brochin up next, Vall-Llobera fired a perfect throw to shortstop Andrew Caminiti to pick off Knowles. Brochin then singled to deep right field (slipping on loose dirt as he rounded first) and came around to score on a two-out throwing error on the Westfield infield.
"The pitch was a strike," Vall-Llobera said of the pickoff play, "and I saw Caminiti get behind him at second base. After I made the throw he did a good job getting the tag down."
The pickoff throw also provided Vall-Llobera a sense of pride since he was playing in the same game as vaunted Millburn catcher Peter Serruto, who is likely to be selected in Monday's Major League Baseball amateur draft.
"Peter and I have played against each other for years, so yes, it was great to do that in this game," Vall-Llobera said. "And I know he was trying to pick runners off later in the game."
Vall-Llobera and Westfield center fielder Barden each have the distinction of having played on sectional champions in two different sports. Both were key members of Westfield's Section 2, Group 4 football championship teams in 2016 and 2017.
MILLBURN (19-9) 101 000 0 -- 2 4 1
WESTFIELD (18-9) 001 201 X -- 4 9 2