Baseball – Group 2 Final Preview: Raritan vs. Pascack Hills
NJSIAA Group II Championship
Sunday, June 10, 1 p.m.
At Veterans Park, Hamilton Twp.
Raritan vs. Pascack Hills
Raritan (21-5, Central Jersey Group II champions)
Head Coach: Jeff Struble
Group Championships: 2003
Group Final Appearances: 2003, 2004 (Group III)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 10 Rumson-Fair Haven, 1-0; No. 2 Bordetown, 7-3; No. 3 Voorhees, 3-1; No. 4 Metuchen, 1-0; SJ II champion Haddonfield, 5-1.
Two 20-plus win teams clash in the Group II final Sunday at Veterans Park in Hamilton, one of which is gunning for win No. 30 to cap the best season in school history. Pascack Hills won its first Bergen County Tournament title in 31 years, reached a group final for the first time in 28 years and is now one win away from its first overall group title since winning back-to-back Group III crowns in 1987 and 1988. Depending on the outcome of the Group IV final, the Cowboys also have a chance to finish No. 1 in the state, according to NJ.com.
Raritan is in the midst of its best season since 2004, when the Rockets lost in the Group III final to a Wall team that won a division, county, conference and state title that year. One year prior, the Rockets beat Hanover Park in the Group II final to claim their first and only overall state title.
Read on for a look at the probable starters, the most dangerous hitters and the key matchups for each team heading into Sunday’s showdown.
Probable Starting Pitcher
Zack Johnston, Sr., RHP
2018 Stats: 8-1, 1.20 ERA, 64 Innings, 79 Strikeouts, 11 Walks, 42 Hits, 0.83 WHIP
With the NJSIAA scheduling the Group II final on Sunday instead of Saturday, Raritan can now hand its undisputed ace the ball for the biggest game the program has played in 14 years. Johnston has been the Rockets’ go-to starter from day one, which also happened to be the only day on which he lost. Marlboro defeated Johnston and Raritan, 3-0, on opening day and Johnston has since gone 8-0 while leading Raritan to both the Shore Conference Class A Central and Central Jersey Group II titles.
Even if Raritan had to play on Saturday, Johnston likely would have gotten the ball and had 77 pitches with which to work after throwing only 73 in a three-hit complete game vs. Haddonfield on Tuesday. Johnston threw 49 of 73 pitches for strikes in that game and faced just two batters over the minimum. Two of the three hits he gave up were erased by a caught stealing and a double play, with another reaching on an error and the other coming in the form of a solo home run.
Top Hitters (With 2018 Stats)
Tyler Bruno (.448, 12 2B, 2 3B, HR, 32 R, 25 RBI)
Jake Tennant (.329, 6 2B, 2 3B, HR, 20 R, 29 RBI)
Ryan Kasmer (.410, 3B, 26 R, 19 RBI)
Dan Fiore (.300, 3 2B, 3B, 20 R, 15 RBI)
Zack Johnston (.291, 3 2B, 3B, 14 RBI)
Alex Lamattina (.276, 3 2B, 14 RBI)
Dan VanMeerbeke (.234, 6 2B, 14 R, 16 RBI)
Raritan has had a punishing offense at times this season, but during the NJSIAA Tournament, this has been a group that has done just enough. The Rockets are averaging 3.4 runs per game in the tournament and won two of its four games by a score of 1-0 – including their sectional final win over Metuchen. In its last win, Raritan got rolling thanks to a four-error inning by Haddonfield, then tacked on two earned runs on three consecutive hits by Johnston, Bruno and Kasmer. That might actually be a good thing heading into Sunday’s matchup against a quality pitcher since Raritan has been used to scratching across runs in tight games.
Pascack Hills (29-2, North Jersey Section 1, Group II champions)
Head Coach: Kevin Kirkby
Group Championships: 1987, 1988 (Both Group III)
Group Final Appearances: 1979, 1987, 1988, 1990 (All Group III)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 16 Mountain Lakes, 10-0; No. 8 Verona, 7-0; No. 13 Jefferson, 14-6; No. 7 River Dell, 5-0; North 2 II champion Madison, 16-0
Probable Starting Pitcher
Ryan Ramsey, Jr., LHP
2018 Stats: 9-1, 0.37 ERA, 56 1/3 Innings, 113 Strikeouts, 15 Walks, 23 Hits, 0.67 WHIP
It might be hard to believe, but despite Ramsey’s other-worldly numbers during his junior season, this isn’t a slam-dunk decision for coach Kevin Kirkby. While Ramsey has been lights-out from the left-side, senior Jack Brodsky has been equally effective from the right side. On top of being a senior who also has a 0.37 ERA and threw only 52 pitches in a five-inning shutout Tuesday vs. Madison, Brodsky has not allowed a run in 34 2/3 consecutive innings in the NJSIAA Tournament dating back to his sophomore year, according to Kirkby in an interview with NorthJersey.com.
Ultimately, however, if Ramsey is ready, it makes all the sense in the world to give the University of Maryland commit the ball. He is striking out about two batters per inning, has pitched well against powerhouses Bergen Catholic and St. Joseph Montvale, and will be facing a Raritan lineup with four left-handed hitters as regulars. He has also pitched seven innings three times this season to Brodsky’s one. One of those games was an 18-strikeout outing over 7 1/3 innings in an extra-inning win over River Dell in April. Coincidentally, Ramsey’s last win was also over River Dell – one-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts in the sectional final.
Top Hitters (With 2018 Stats)
Chris Curcio (.367, 10 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 18 R, 27 RBI)
Mike Rodriguez (.389, 9 2B, 3B, 23 R, 30 RBI, 18 SB)
Paul Sullivan (.389, 7 2B, HR, 35 R, 17 RBI)
Brandon Siegenthaler (.333, 9 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 21 R, 26 RBI)
Julian Bulzomi (.333, 7 2B, 2 HR, 34 R, 14 RBI)
Chris Lum (.367, 9 2B, 22 R, 17 RBI)
Marc Hernandez (.313, 5 2B, 3B, 14 R, 20 RBI)
Ryan Ramsey (.291, 4 2B, HR, 21 R, 19 RBI)
The duo at the top of the rotation is most responsible for Pascack Hills’ historic season, but the offense has been no slouch either. The Cowboys have seven hitters in the lineup hitting better than .300 and another in Spencer Berson who is hitting .364 in only 11 at-bats after a career game in the semifinal win over Madison. After the 16-0 win over Madison, Pascack Hills is averaging 10.4 runs per game during the NJSIAA Tournament while pitching shutouts in four of the five wins.
The only reason the Cowboys gave up six against Jefferson in the sectional semifinals was because Ramsey and Brodsky were not available, having pitched and won the final two games of the Bergen County Tournament against St. Joseph of Montvale and Don Bosco. If not for the mixed tournaments, Pascack Hills might be outscoring opponents 52-0 over the four games.
Key to Victory
Raritan – Tyler Bruno early and often
It goes without saying that Raritan needs a typical performance from Johnston to win, but the x-factor player for the Rockets is likely to be Bruno. Only a junior, he already has an All-Shore selection on his resume, he hits good pitching and he will be leading off the game against a dominant left-hander who will be facing a relatively lefty-heavy lineup behind Bruno. Even if Raritan works Ramseys’ pitch count, Pascack Hills has Brodsky available behind him, so from the Raritan perspective, there is no escaping a dominant pitcher in this game. Plain and simple, the Rockets will have to beat a very good arm.
Bruno is going to get a chance to lead off the game and with Johnston hitting well lately out of the No. 9 spot, there could also be an RBI chance at some point for the junior center fielder as well. Raritan is also going to need its lefties – Kasmer, Tennant, D.J. Dekis and Shawn Ohea – to battle and its middle-of-the-order right-handed bats like Fiore, Lamattina and VanMeerbeke to capitalize on any RBI situations in which they may find themselves. The first inning is always a tone-setter for an underdog and with Bruno starting things off, the Rockets will have a chance to make an early statement.
Bruno had a strong showing at the plate in last year’s state tournament loss to Governor Livingston, so there is every reason to believe he could have a major impact on the game. It is, however, a lot easier said than done. Bruno has also made an impact in center field, so keep an eye out for a big play in the outfield as well.
Pascack Hills – Patience Early
Johnston has been about as good as any pitcher in the Shore Conference this season so a lot of what applies to Raritan in hitting Ramsey applies to Pascack Hills as well. For the Cowboys, however, they might be better suited to see some pitches early, force Johnston to get ahead and if Johnston is finishing off batters early, change things up. He is normally adept at putting hitters away, but he got to two strikes eight times against Haddonfield and finished with just two strikeouts. He has also had games – albeit early in the season, mostly – in which he has run up his pitch count early and had to leave the game before making it through the sixth inning.
Dan VanMeerbeke and Jake Tennant have had very good seasons on the mound for Raritan but there is a bigger drop-off from Johnston to them than there is from Ramsey to Brodsky. Raritan should feel fine about turning a close game over to VanMeerbeke after his four-hit shutout in the sectional final, but the Rockets will want to ride Johnston as long as possible. Pascack Hills and its deep, dangerous lineup will try to make it a long slog through each inning if it can’t knock him out with a big inning early.