Baseball – Old Bridge Dethrones Defending Group IV Champ Jackson Memorial
JACKSON TWP. – Over the last month of its season, the Jackson Memorial baseball team has made scoring in its final at-bat or with its outs dwindling seem like an inevitability, and the Jaguars again bit an opponent Tuesday in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV semifinals.
After coming back once and needing another run with the outs in their season and the daylight of the late evening running out, a Jackson Memorial opponent finally squashed a late-inning Jaguars rally.
Old Bridge – the No. 9 seed in Central Jersey Group IV – scored the winning run on a balk with one out in the top of the 13th inning and the No. 4 Jaguars squandered a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the bottom of the inning as the Rams unseated the defending Group IV champion, 3-2, in extra innings.
“It’s fun to be in those situations, especially in the state tournament,” Jackson Memorial coach Frank Malta said. “You certainly don’t want to be going into extra innings every single game. We had opportunities to score and just didn’t take advantage of enough of them. I am proud that we gave ourselves a chance to come back, but unfortunately, we just couldn’t find a way to get it done.”
Jackson Memorial (22-6) extended the game by scoring the tying run in the bottom of the 12th after Old Bridge (19-12) grabbed a 2-1 lead in the top of the inning. Senior center fielder Joe DeMaio reached first base on a strike-three wild pitch with one out and later scored on a fielder's choice ground out by shortstop Kyle Johnson.
Designated hitter Nick Rocco had the lone hit during the 12th-inning rally and the Jaguars loaded the bases with one out when DeMaio beat a throw to third base on a ground ball hit by catcher Kyle Lona to Old Bridge shortstop Rob Laconti. Johnson followed with a chopper to shortstop that he beat to first base before the Knights could turn the game-ending double play.
Old Bridge responded by loading the bases against Jackson Memorial reliever Matt Castronuova – the winning pitcher in the Jaguars’ 11-inning, come-from-behind win over Hillsborough on Friday – in the top of the 13th. Castronuova – a right-handed pitcher – set up in the windup and attempted to step off the rubber with his left foot instead of his right foot, which triggered a balk call from the home plate umpire. The call forced home Vin Donofrio with the go-ahead run from third.
Jackson Memorial answered with a threat in the bottom of the 13th, beginning with a leadoff single by senior Brandon Janofsky, followed by a walk to junior first baseman Chris Hawryluk. Senior right fielder Matt Crispe dropped down a sacrifice bunt and Old Bridge, in turn, elected to intentionally walk left fielder Rich Rountree to load the bases with one out.
Knights reliever Luis Cruz induced a ground out by DeMaio, with first baseman Jimmy Freel firing the ball to the plate for the second out. Rocco returned to the plate flew out to center to end the game.
“Their propensity to come back is something that worried us,” Old Bridge coach Jimmy Freel, Sr. said. “Coach Malta and I have known each other for 30 years. We’re both from Elizabeth and we played together, so I know what he’s been able to do here and it makes this a little bittersweet.”
Knights starting pitcher Tyler Hopman hit a game-tying solo home run to left field in the top of the sixth inning and later hit the first of back-to-back two-out doubles that gave Old Bridge a 2-1 lead in the top of the 12th. Hopman - an ambidextrous pitcher and left-handed batter - stung a line drive over the head of DeMaio in center with two out in the 12th and designated hitter Jordan Fetterman followed with another line drive to deep center that chased Hopman home with the go-ahead run.
Johnson threw out the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the top of the ninth inning on a relay from Rountree on a double by Attianese.
“Kyle’s a natural shortstop, so we don’t really lose anything with him out there,” Malta said. “He’s really had a heck of a season. He’s been one of the best players in the Shore this year.”
Jackson Memorial took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning on a dropped popup off the bat of Rocco with two out.
Janofsky - playing second base on Tuesday - went 3-for-5 with a walk and two stolen bases to account for half of Jackson Memorial's hits. He also made a diving play to record an out on a ground ball by Laconti for the first out of the sixth, two batters before Hopman hit the game-tying home run.
Janofsky is 11-0 during his career as a starting pitcher and has an earned-run average below 1.00 over the past two seasons, but was shut down due to elbow soreness, according to coach Frank Malta. Old Bridge left-hander Zach Attianese – who is committed to the University of North Carolina and started in right field on Tuesday – is also dealing with arm soreness, according to Freel, Sr.
Attianese was 1-for-3 with a double and three walks on Tuesday and also hit a long foul ball that had the distance of a home run by hooked just wide of the right-field foul pole.
Jaguars senior right-hander Ryan Takacs allowed one run on six hits and two walks while striking out 10 in 8 2/3 innings. Castronuova pitched the final 4 1/3 frames and took the loss.
Hopman - throwing right-handed on Tuesday - allowed one unearned run on four hits and three walks while striking out 10 over eight innings of work. Cruz, who logged only two innings all season prior to Tuesday - earned the win with five innings of relief.
Old Bridge will play at No. 2 Hunterdon Central in the Central Jersey Group IV final on Friday.
Jackson Memorial will play Red Bank Catholic in Wednesday’s Shore Conference Tournament semifinals at Count Basie Park in Red Bank, looking to extend its season that has been abundant in comeback wins like the one the Jaguars hoped to author on Tuesday.
“I hope we can bounce back,” Malta said. “It’s tough to come back 24 hours after a loss like this, but we did the same thing to Wall when we beat them (in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals) after they had just lost the day before (in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III first round). You just come back and keep fighting and hope you can keep your season going.”