(A throwback from 2016, the Somerset County championship game pitting Montgomery and Watchung Hills was a grinder right to the last pitch. Always worth another look.)
By Bob Behre
Montgomery’s Gavin Hollowell overwhelmed Watchung Hill’s potent lineup for six and two-thirds innings but nailing down the final out of the Somerset County Tournament had suddenly become a slippery, untenable slope.
Enter lefthander Matt Gannon, placed in the most precarious of all positions by his coach Pete Mueller, himself clearly auditioning for a role as the antagonist in an antacid commercial.
Mueller had pulled Somerset County’s best pitcher and asked Gannon to get the final out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning and Montgomery clinging to a 2-1 lead. Eric Plesko worked the count to 2-2 before Gannon induced a bouncer to the right side that second baseman Nick Pascale turned into a 4-3 groundout and a resounding celebration.
Hollowell’s dominance, Gannon’s fearless one-out save and Mueller’s belief that yanking his ace in favor of Gannon was the right move, delivered Montgomery’s third county championship Monday night at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater.
“Sometimes you go with your gut,” said Mueller, “but maybe it’s more important to trust your eyes.” Mueller’s eyes proved correct and his gut is undoubtedly made of cast iron, as few in the crowd of more than 1,000 would have thought pulling Hollowell the prudent approach.
“You can say it was a tough decision, but it really wasn’t,” said Mueller, who replaced one extremely long (6'-6") future Division 1 power pitcher – Hollowell is bound for St. John’s University – with another. Gannon will ply his trade for Northwestern next fall.
Hollowell very nearly had a 1-2-3 seventh after getting a pair of quick ground ball outs to begin the inning and watching Chris Roth bounce another ground ball toward third base. Matt Ryan charged in, scooped up the ball nicely but, perhaps rushing his throw, threw it in the dirt and past first baseman Nick Marro.
That’s how close Hollowell had come to closing out this game minus drama.
Hollowell (4-1) had entered the seventh at 73 pitches and still appeared primed to close out what was still looking like a one-hit shutout. This Warriors team, however, has never been the type to go quietly – if at all. John Port worked a walk and Tyler Kulisz, the No. 8 hitter, lined a single into center field to score Roth and shave the deficit to 2-1.
That brought up the No. 9 hitter, lefty-hitting Sullivan Bean, and Mueller admitted he was ready to go to Gannon at that point.
“They had lefty, lefty coming up, so we liked the matchup,” said Mueller. “But I thought Gavin could get their No. 9 hitter.”
Bean worked a momentous 11-pitch walk to load the bases and Mueller’s eyes had convinced his stomach. “What it came down to was Gavin showing a little fatigue,” said Mueller. “The ball wasn’t jumping out of his hand anymore. And I think he started to press about a couple close ball-and-strike calls.”
Gannon, meanwhile, had no doubt he’d close it out.
“I just wanted to come in and shut it down,” said Gannon. “No one expected us to be here and I wanted to make sure we finished it.”
Mueller said, “I turned to Matt and said this one was his. He said, ‘Coach, I got this.’ I felt real good at that point.”
Mueller and sixth-seeded Montgomery felt real good for much of Hollowell’s near complete-game gem. He allowed one run on two hits, struck out nine and walked three. He made his first statement of his intent to wrest control of matters in the second inning. Brandon Hylton led off with a single to right field and Nick Mink reached on an infield error. Hollowell simply buckled down and struck out the next three batters to end the threat.
“My slider was working well and my fastball had a good tail to it,” said Hollowell. “I had a couple pitches at the end that were close to strikes.”
Hollowell snared Matt Mastrobattista’s one-out liner back to the mound in the third and turned it into a 1-3 double play. That began a streak in which he retired eight straight batters before Mastrobattista reached on an error with two outs in the sixth. The big righty would, in fact, retire 16 of 18 batters before Roth reached on the error in the seventh.
Montgomery (14-8) scored what proved to be the decisive run in the top of the fifth when Gavin Sudano ripped a shot into the gap in left-center field for a triple and scored one out later on a balk.
“He was throwing a lot of first-pitch fastballs,” said Sudano. “He threw me one on the first pitch, up and in, and I jumped on it.”
Ahead 2-0, Montgomery came extremely close to tacking on two more runs in the inning.
Matt Rubayo and Ryan McKenna drew back-to-back two-out walks then Jesse Gerdes crushed one deep into the left-center field gap. But the center fielder Plesko made a remarkable catch on a dead run, way out by the warning track, to end the inning.
It was Sudano who scored Montgomery’s first run in the top of the first.
He reached on an error and moved to third on back-to-back singles by Hollowell (3-for-3) and Rubayo. McKenna then worked a walk to force Sudano home with the game’s first run.
“That put us in front and gave us momentum,” said Sudano. “That was big.” Every Montgomery run would prove huge with Hollowell dominating.
Righthander Tyler Lombardo started and permitted two runs, none earned, on six hits, struck out five and walked three for top-seeded Watchung Hills. Lefty Brian Reiss then worked two scoreless innings on one hit. He struck out two and walked none.
Montgomery’s previous Somerset County Tournament championships came in 2003 and 2010. Watchung Hills (18-4), which fell to Hillsborough, 3-1, in last year’s SCT final, has won county crowns in 1975, ’82, ’83, ’93 and 2009.