by Andrew Garda
The Montclair High School baseball team reached the semifinals of the Greater Newark Tournament for the sixth time since 2010 Thursday afternoon, May 9, with a 5-2 win over Livingston.
The No. 4-seeded Mounties did it with a 2-out rally in the bottom of the fifth inning and some sharp pitching by senior Conor McGrath.
“I tell the guys all the time that, especially in tournament games, there’s going to be a point in the game where it’s going to get really, really hard on us,” said head coach Ron Gavazzi. “And we’re going to have to the make a decision about if we’re going to go out there and keep battling. And I thought we did that today.”
The Mounties kicked things off in the bottom of the first inning, as McGrath led off with a single, and then was advanced by Kyle Miller’s sacrifice hit. Designated hitter Evan Chaladoff then rocketed a hit off Livingston pitcher MJ DePaola’s foot, putting runners on the corners.
Then Gavazzi did something unexpected—he pinch hit Ethan Greengrass for starting pitcher Ben Zucker, who had dominated the Lancers in the first inning.
Except it wasn’t unexpected in the Mounties’ dugout.
“We had a pitching plan going into the game, where we wanted to throw our relievers first, and then bring in our long guy, our starter in essence, on the back end,” Gavazzi explained. “So the way the lineup shook, we had to have our starting pitcher in the lineup because we already had a DH in the game, so then we had to enter Ethan that way into the bottom of the first inning, knowing he would be taking over the ball no matter what, in the second inning.”
Gavazzi said he was looking at it as a chance to get his team off to a strong start, both on the field and at the plate. By having Zucker, a strong reliever with a toolbox of tough pitches to hit, face the top of the Livingston order, the hope was the Mounties would smother the Lancers that first inning.
Zucker rose to the challenge.
“[Livingston’s] top three in the lineup is as good as any top three in the county and Ben Zucker, knew his role in this game,” Gavazzi said. “I have the top third, I have to get the three best hitters on their team out, and set the tone of the ballgame. And he came out throwing vicious sliders and curve-balls and they were swinging way over the top of them.”
The result was two strikeouts and a fly ball to centerfield, with no hits or runs for Livingston, allowing Gavazzi to use Greengrass as a pinch-hitter in a critical first-inning spot.
Greengrass worked DePaola hard, fouling off several balls before connecting for a sacrifice hit that sent McGrath home with two outs.
Montclair wasn’t done though, as both Kenny Nedzi, and Kevin Zaccareo reached base on hits, with Zaccareo driving in Chaladoff, and AJ Zaccareo reaching on an error by the pitcher before catcher Nick Urquijo popped out to end the inning.
The damage was more than just the two runs, however. DePaola threw 37 pitches in one half inning, and while he settled down for much of the rest of the game, the fatigue would play a part in the bottom of the fifth.
Greengrass stayed in on the mound for Montclair pitching two scoreless innings until McGrath took over to close out the game.
Gavazzi said McGrath hasn’t pitched in three weeks, but the staff has been working with him for just such an occasion. The Mounties had a rough top of the fifth though, as an error on a Livingston base hit got the Lancers going, resulting in two runs.
Even still, McGrath showed his power at the end of the inning, as he struck out two of the four best hitters the Lancers had to offer, the second with bases loaded after an intentional walk.
“Conor is a great pitcher. I just thought he had some real lightning stuff,” Gavazzi said. “Making huge pitches to get [Will] Egner and then get the four hitter after the intentional walk in between. I just thought he got really, really tough when the game was at its hardest.”
The Mounties hitters followed suit in the bottom of the fifth, although it took them a few minutes. DePaola first got Chaladoff to pop up for the first out, and then got Greengrass to strike out looking. The Lancers were feeling good, shouting encouragement at their team and rallying them to keep fighting.
Those 37 first inning pitches started to wear on DePaola, whose pitch count was in the 80s.
First, Nedzi got a base hit. Then Fischer cracked a double to send Nedzi home, before stealing third on a wild pitch. He was sent home on a seeing-eye single between first and second by AJ Zaccareo, who scored himself on a double by Urquijo.
DePaola finally got shortstop Alex Borelli out to end the inning, but the damage was done and the Mounties had a 5-2 lead.
After that, it was just up to McGrath to finish things off, and he did so with some potent breaking balls and dynamic fastballs.
“His breaking stuff was good, his fastball had some real good life, especially there in the seventh inning,” Gavazzi said. “To blow away the pinch hitter, I don’t know what the gun reading was, but he really dug deep and reached back to throw a great fastball in the outer third [of the plate].”
On Saturday, May 11, the Mounties head to Verona, for a neutral site game against top-seeded Nutley, who squeaked by No. 9-seeded Verona in eight innings, 1-0. Nutley is a great team who has beaten Montclair twice this season, but the Mounties have won four of their last five games, and two in a row, so they might be heating up at the right time.
Add in Nutley needed to use three pitchers on Thursday, and this might be the perfect score for Montclair to surprise a lot of folks.
First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m., following the 11 a.m. game between No. 2-seeded Seton Hall and No. 3-seeded Millburn.
“I really couldn’t be more proud of this 2019 Mounties team because I know in my heart, and I’ve told them, they were fully capable of achieving this feat,” Gavazzi said. “They earned it by earning the four-seed, earning two home games and they made the most of it.”