Every pitch counts as Wood-Ridge tops Emerson

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mike Giancaspro making contact on the sacrifice fly that capped Wood-Ridge's comeback. The Blue Devils scored three runs in the sixth inning and four more in the seventh to pull off an 8-7 Opening Day win on Sunday afternoon.

WOOD-RIDGE – In the ‘Old Days,’ that is to say last season, neither head coach would have even been thinking about pulling their starting pitcher. There really no reason to be doing so much math in the dugouts, no reason to be obsessing over every pitch thrown. Each starter, Emerson’s Rob Leuck and Wood-Ridge’s Nick Pronti, were cruising. The weather was perfect and the first five innings were relatively stress free for two experienced starting pitchers who were perfectly primed to go deep into the late innings of a classic pitcher’s duel.

But in the ‘New Days,’ which started in the season opener for both teams on Sunday afternoon, both Wood-Ridge skipper Mike Carcich and Emerson’s Chris Sommerholter felt the pressure to get their aces out of there as quickly as possible. It was not because of game situations, but it came instead from the NJSIAA, which forced a goofy pitch count rule down everybody’s throat this year and, with one stroke of the pen, changed the way the game of high school baseball is played.

Carcich was forced to act first as he yanked Pronti after five innings and 69 pitches thrown. Emerson promptly put up a four-spot in the frame immediately following his departure. Sommerhalter followed suit after Leuck had thrown 71 pitches in five stellar frames and guess what happened? Wood-Ridge, which was limited to four hits and one run over the first five innings, wrapped out seven hits and drew three walks over the final two. By outlasting Leuck and letting the pitch count dictate strategy, the Blue Devils scored three times in the sixth inning and added four more runs in the bottom of the seventh to turn a 7-1 deficit into an 8-7 win on Saturday afternoon.

This is the new reality and one we all have to get used to, especially on the Group 1 level where pitching depth does not now, nor has it ever existed.

“As I was [cursing] this whole pitch count rule going into the fifth inning, it turns out it probably led us to winning the game because if Leuck stays in there, we probably lose the game. He had our number initially. When we got into their bullpen is when we finally came alive with the bats a little bit,” said Carcich. “[The pitch count rule] changes the way the game is played. I am in the middle of the fourth inning asking how many pitches my kid has because I want to bring him back to close on Wednesday. Instead of thinking about a situation that is currently happening I am thinking about what I can potentially do to get my kid out so I could potential have him for a game a couple of days from now.”

Emerson starter Rob Leuck threw five stellar innings and also hit a first-inning two-run homer.

The game was separated into two distinct sections; one while the starting pitchers were in and then the second after they left. Emerson (0-1) took the lead right from the get go as its first two hitters of the game came around to touch home plate. Both leadoff hitter Brendan Kelly and Leuck fell behind in the count against Pronti, but Kelly pulled an 0-2 pitch into the leftfield corner for a double and Leuck, a left-handed hitter, pulled an 0-2 pitch over the right field fence for a home run and a 2-0 Emerson lead.

Those two pitches might have been the only mistakes that Pronti (5 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 H, 6 K, 0 BB, 69 pitches) made as he settled in to retire the next 10 hitters he faced. The only other run he allowed came in the top of the fourth when he gave up a one-out single to Joe Carmosino (2-for-3, 2 R, RBI), who took second on a fielding mistake and scored on a two-out single up the middle by Tyler Callagy (1-for-3, RBI).

“I struggled with the bottom of the order hitters. They kept fouling my fastball off and I was hoping to get them out quicker because of the pitch count rule,” said Pronti. “It is not like I am thinking about how many pitches I am throwing when I am out there, but every time you come into the dugout the coaches are telling you how many pitches you have because it is a part of the strategy now.”

Leuck (5 IP, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 H, 6 K, 2 BB, 71 pitches) was even more impressive. Often working backwards with early-in-the-count breaking balls thrown for strikes and then well-spotted fastballs mixed in, Leuck gave up just two hits and a walk over his first four innings before being touched for a run in the fifth, his final inning of work, and it was the bottom of the Wood-Ridge order that got it started.

Jake Colon (1-for-3, RBI, R) and Jack Barteck (1-for-4, 2 R) each singled and Pronti (2-for-3, 2 RBI, 2 BB) walked to load the bases with no outs, but Leuck limited the damage with three straight ground ball outs with only the one by Shian Tanaka (1-for-3, RBI) able to plate a run as Wood-Ridge was down 3-1 heading into the sixth inning.

Wood-Ridge starter Nick Pronti threw five strong innings before leaving after 69 pitches.

That was when the bullpens took over and when the tenor of the game changed. Emerson’s first four hitters – Leuck, Anthony Laureano, Carmosino and Anthony Scozzafava -- all reached safely and all came around to score as the Cavos put up four runs in the top of the sixth, which gave them what looked like a comfortable 7-1 lead.

That was not the case, however, as the pitch count rule forced the hand of Sommerhalter as his team took the field in the bottom of the inning.

“You have to be constantly thinking about it. Robbie Leuck was doing really well. He was at 71 pitches, we had a 6-run lead and we thought we were in pretty good shape,” said Sommerhalter. “That turned out not to be the case.”

Wood-Ridge sent eight hitters to the plate in the top of the sixth inning and scored three times to get back to within 7-4. Chris Musante (1-for-3, 2 R) got it started with a leadoff single, went to second on a wild pitch and scored two batters later on Nick DiNato’s RBI single. Anthony Trano (2-for-4, R) scored on a Pronti’s grounds-rule double to deep centerfield and Barteck scored on Mike Giancaspro’s infield single.
The top of the seventh inning was the kind that will be so important for teams in this new era. Tanaka, who struggled in his first inning of relief, settled down in his second. He pitched around Kelly’s leadoff double and Carmosino’s two-out walk to hang up a zero and even though the Blue Devils were trailing 7-4 heading into their final turn at bat, it felt like they had all the momentum.

When Chris Leone reached on a throwing error to start Wood-Ridge’s last licks, the comeback was given a kick start. Musante walked and Trano singled to load the bases with no outs and Wood-Ridge’s next five hitters all came to bat with the bases loaded. DiNato beat the play on a slow roller up the first base line to make it 7-5 and Colon walked to force home the run that got the Devils to within one.

Brendan Kelly had two doubles and scored a run for Emerson.

Emerson got a force at home for the first out, but Pronti then walked to force DiNato home with the tying run and bring up Giancaspro.

“I was just looking to put the ball in play and hit it in a spot that would let the winning run come home,” said Giancaspro. “The comeback shows the heart that this team has. Even when we were down 7-1 I turned to one of my coaches and said, ‘There is no way we are going to lose this game,’ and it was up to me to get that run home any way I could.”

The method was a line drive that was heading toward the left centerfield gap. Had it not been for a brilliant diving catch by Emerson centerfielder Andrew Brahm, it would have been a walk-off hit. Instead, Giancaspro was credited with a walk-off sacrifice fly that scored Colon and set off a celebration at home plate.

There is already so much to discuss and the season is only about 24 hours old.

“It was a crazy game and crazy way to start the season and I am just glad we got a game in, especially on a 60-degree day, a great day to play baseball,” said Carcich. “I am very proud of my kids for showing resiliency. I told them before the game that whether we were up 10 or down 10, to play with pride, to play Wood-Ridge baseball and always battle through every situation. That is what these kids did. We got a couple of guys at the bottom of the order to give us some quality at bats and get the rally going. It was unbelievable.”