Old Tappan's seventh straight win is a shutout

Senior Rich Gutschmidt threw five scoreless innings as NV/Old Tappan won its seventh straight game, 3-0, over Northern Highlands on Friday.

OLD TAPPAN – Alex Kranzler was one of the best pitchers to come through Bergen County, so when he graduated last June on his way to the Pitching Lab at Vanderbilt University there was going to be a glaring hole at the top of the Northern Valley/Old Tappan pitching rotation. Nothing was more illustrative of that than an Opening Day loss in which the Golden Knights gave up 14 runs to rival Demarest.

The adjustment period, however, was surprisingly brief. Old Tappan has not lost since and ran its win streak to seven straight games behind Rich Gutschmidt, who threw five shutout innings in his third victory of the season, a 3-0 victory over Northern Highlands on Friday that ran the Knights’ record to 7-1 on the season.

“I have a great team behind me and everybody was making plays and I was hitting my spots,” said Gutschmidt, a tall right-hander. “It’s going well for us right now. We are pitching better, filling the strike zone and everyone is hitting the ball. Everybody has been stepping up and we had to because we lost so many good guys from last year.”

There is a lot of roster turnover with Gutschmidt, Mike Kim and Jason Cho the only three seniors, but this group is locked in and willing to put in the work to get better. While longtime head coach Tim Byron enjoyed the security of have Kranzler ready for every big game, he also likes this type of squad and its potential.

“Seven-and-1 is a good surprise. I thought we could grow and put stuff together toward the end [of the season] because we are so young. But I like where we are at here. These kids come to play and they give you effort,” said Byron. “The kid that is the guts of this team is [Alex] Orecchio. He fires the kids up, he gets on them, he takes responsibility on himself if he screws up and we have a good mix.”

Paden Mather threw six strong innings for Northern Highlands, which fell to 5-5 on the season.

Orecchio, the junior second baseman, is also the starting quarterback for the football team and his leadership qualities are easy to spot.

“We have a bunch of young kids; a lot of talent but a lot of young kids that have to grow into these shoes. We had a big group of seniors last year and there was a lot to replace,” said Orecchio. “Me, Rocco [Pierorazio] and Kai [Ross] are just trying to take control a little bit, calm everyone down and help the young guys. People can get antsy playing varsity for the first time, so we are just trying to settle every down and lead by just doing our job.”

The job was a tough one against Northern Highlands right-hander Paden Mather, who pounded the strike zone and got some big outs in tight spots, including a Houdini-esque escape in the bottom of the second inning when Old Tappan had four hits, including one for extra and three in a row, without pushing a run across. Mateo Skific’s one-out triple to right field set the table for an instant rally, but he was picked off third by Highlands’ catcher Drew Devitt after an unsuccessful bunt attempt.

Three straight singles by Ross (2-for-3, RBI, AJ Aiello (1-for-3) and Orecchio (1-for-3), two of them of the infield variety, loaded the bases before Mather induced a slow ground ball to the right side for the final out in a still scoreless game.

For as well at Gutschmidt (5 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 6 K, 1 BB, 1 HBP, W) pitched, he was forced to do a lot of it out of the stretch as Northern Highlands put the leadoff runner on base in each of the five innings he threw. Gutschmidt got a double play ball to end the first, stranded Marc Putrino in scoring position in the second and got a ground ball with the bases loaded and two outs in the third that Cayden Yoon fielded cleanly for the third out.

Kai Ross had two hits and drive in a run for Old Tappan, which has not lost since Opening Day.

When Gutschmidt came out for the fourth inning he finally had a lead to work with.

Max Garcia (1-for-2, R, BB), hitting in the leadoff spot, drew a walk, the only one Prather (6 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 7 H, 6 K, BB, 2 HBP) issued in the game, to open the bottom of the third. Yoon (0-for-2, R, HBP) was then hit by a pitch and, two batters later, Anthony Onnembo (1-for-3, RBI) singled in the game’s first run. Yoon scored on a Skific (1-for-3, RBI, 3B) ground out and Ross (2-for-3, RBI) delivered an RBI single to plate the third run of the inning and the last of the game.

Prather face the minimum nine batters over his final three innings of work and Gutschmidt worked around a leadoff single by Devitt (2-for-4) in the fifth before retiring the next three straight to close his outing. Skific (2 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 0H, 1 K, 0 BB, S), a left-hander, came on to retire all six batters he faced to pick up the save in a game that lasted all of 1:38.

It was a well-played game, but also a part of a pattern that Northern Highlands is now desperate to break. After a 3-0 start to the season the Highlanders have now been shutout in three straight losses that have dropped their record to even at 5-5.

“Our pitching has been great, but offensively we are just not competitive right now. We are getting good pitching and that is keeping us in games, but we have to do a better job at plate,” said Paul Albarella, who is in his 20th season as Highlands’ head coach. “It’s a long season and that is what we tell them, but we are going to have to find the right mix here pretty soon.”

The status quo is just fine for Old Tappan.

“The pitching has been great all year. [Gutschmidt] did great today. He hit every spot in and out and his curveball was working. All of his stuff was there today. Skific came in and hit all of his spot two and we had Kai Ross ready to go behind him if we needed him,” said Onnembo, a sophomore who is in his second season as Old Tappan’s starting catcher. “We want to keep this momentum going. Seven [wins] in a row, it really could be eight, and we just want to keep it rolling.”