Baseball – A.J. Gracia Carries Ranney Into First Shore Conference Tournament Final
RED BANK -- If the ideal baseball player possesses five tools, then the prototype for the well-rounded ballplayer is selling Ranney senior A.J. Gracia short.
The Duke-bound left-hander exhibited no fewer than six tools Thursday at Count Basie Park in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals against Rumson-Fair Haven and if you include his exceptional baseball instinct, then make it seven tools.
Gracia stole a run with his speed and intuition early on, added another with his power, and closed out a landmark win for his team on the mound, leading No. 1 seed Ranney to a 2-1 win over No. 4 Rumson-Fair Haven that earns the Panthers their first ever trip to the Shore Conference Tournament final.
"They are tough every time we play them," Gracia said of Rumson-Fair Haven, which has played Ranney three times over the past two years, with Ranney winning the series, 2-1, in three games that were all decided by a single run. "They have a great team, especially when you have pitching like they do. It's never going to be a blowout, so we knew it was going to be a tough game."
As a hitter, Gracia finished 2-for-3 with a double and the go-ahead home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. On the bases, he made a bold break for the plate to score the first run of the game on a wild pitch in the bottom of the first. On the mound, he pitched the final 2 2/3 innings, surrendering a runner he inherited from starter Nick Coniglio, but pitching scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh innings to secure the win.
Gracia took over on the mound with one on and out out in the top of the fifth inning after starter Nick Coniglio threw 92 pitches and struck out 11 while recording the first 13 outs for Ranney. The inherited runner scored after Reece Moroney singled to left and Jack Riva smacked a single through the right side to score pinch-runner Gavin Kiley -- who took over on the base paths after Griffin Shenman walked and moved to second on Moroney's single.
After giving up the lead, Gracia led off the bottom of the fifth, worked the count in his favor, 2-0, and unloaded on a fastball from Rumson-Fair Haven reliever Cal Champeau -- who had just taken over for starter Jackson Hinchcliffe. Gracia's line drive off the bat took off and carried just over the right-centerfield fence to send him into a home run trot that ended with him touching home plate as the winning run.
The home run was the eighth of the season and 25th in his career for Gracia.
"For me, less movement is always better," Gracia said of his swing. "I feel like, when I try to do too much, like with a big leg kick, I just get all out of whack. Even in a count like 2-0, when I'm trying to do more damage, I just want to stay simple, because even if I single there, it still gets us going as a team.
"Today the wind was blowing in, so I didn't know if it was going to get out or not," Gracia said. "I knew I hit it pretty good and luckily, it ended up going over the fence.
The run held up after Gracia pitched scoreless sixth and seventh innings, retiring the side in order in the seventh to close out the game.
"It has happened (giving up a lead on the mound) a couple times now and two out of the three times, I have been up the next inning," Gracia said. "It's good a redemption story for me but I'd like to stop losing leads."
Gracia also manufactured Ranney's first run on his own, which started with a leadoff double inside the first-base bag in the bottom of the first. Ryan Costello's groundout to first moved Gracia to third, but Hinchcliffe came through with a strikeout to come within an out of escaping unscathed.
Gracia, however, read a slider in the dirt and although it did not get far from Rumson catcher Owen Kenney, the Ranney leadoff hitter broke for the plate and beat Kenney to the dish with a head-first dive.
"I just tried to see something down and anticipate it hitting the dirt," Gracia said. "Once it hit the dirt, I was already taking off. (Kenney) wasn't that far away, so I was more trying to beat the catcher than the pitcher."
Thursday marked the second time this season Ranney and Rumson-Fair Haven played a one-run game in a tournament setting and Gracia was central in both. On May 7, Gracia hit a home run and picked up the win in relief, although on that day, Kenney and Riva hit solo home runs off Gracia to tie the game, 3-3. The moved into extra innings and after Gracia pitched a scoreless top-of-the-eighth inning, Ranney scored the winning run on a wild pitch.
After Riva beat Gracia Thursday for an RBI single to score Rumson's lone run, Gracia retired seven of the next eight hitters. Bulldogs third baseman Aaron Del Tin created a sixth-inning threat with he dropped a shallow fly ball inside the leftfield line for a one-out double.
First baseman Spencer Hobson then hit a long, high fly ball into left-centerfield to advance Del Tin to third base in exchange for the second out of the inning. Gracia then struck out the final batter of the inning to strand the tying run at third.
In the seventh inning, Gracia did not run into any trouble, finishing off the inning on 12 pitches, with a strikeout to close it out.
Before Gracia made his presence felt in the final three innings, Coniglio carved through the Rumson lineup, striking out 11 of the 16 batters he faced through the first four innings, with two batters reaching on errors, one on a hit and two more on walks. Coniglio departed after throwing 92 pitches, which means he is done pitching in the SCT since he will be ineligible for the championship game.
Gracia also had an impact in the late innings of Ranney's Monmouth County Tournament championship game against Red Bank Catholic, giving up the lead on the mound in the top of the seventh inning, hitting the game-tying RBI double in the bottom of the inning and scoring the winning run on Ryan Costello's game-ending RBI single.
Ranney will try to beat RBC again Sunday, when the two teams clash for a second time in a championship game. Round two will take place at ShoreTown Ballpark in Lakewood and will feature two teams in pursuit of history.
If RBC wins, it will mark the first time any team has ever won four consecutive Shore Conference Tournament championships. With the 2020 tournament canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, RBC's four championships would be won over a span of five years -- which has also never been done in the 43-year history of the Shore Conference Tournament.
Ranney, meanwhile, is not only seeking its first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship; it is also looking to complete the third leg of the hallowed quadruple crown. Only two teams in Shore Conference history have won division, county, conference, NJSIAA sectional and group championships in the same season: Wall in 2004 and Christian Brothers Academy in 2015. With a win on Sunday, Ranney would be a run to the Non-Public B championship away from becoming the third team in Shore history to complete the feat.
"It's been one of our criticisms the last two years that we haven't really performed within the Shore Conference until this year," Gracia said. "If we can end up winning a championship, then we'll finish undefeated against the Shore, which would be a pretty big deal."
Ranney 2, Rumson-Fair Haven 1
|Cal Champeau (L)||1||2||1||1||0||2||21|
|A.J. Gracia (W)||2.2||3||0||0||0||3||44|
|Rumson-Fair Haven||Game Stats|
|Jack Riva||1-2, BB, RBI|
|Aaron Del Tin||1-3, 2B|
|A.J. Gracia||2-3, 2B, HR, 2 R, RBI|
|Jack Tallent||1-3, 2B|