John Capra was thrust right into the fire Sunday night. Fortunately he brought an extinguisher with him.
Capra, who had never before appeared in a varsity game or scrimmage, tossed an inning and 2/3s of relief while escaping a pair of huge jams, and that seemed to be the spark needed for the Bridgewater-Raritan High School baseball team, ranked No. 7 in the Courier News top 10, to rally for a 3-1 victory over neighborhood rival Somerville at the Prince Rodgers Baseball Complex.
“Johnny did a great job,” Bridgewater-Raritan coach Max Newell said. “He’s been working hard and wanted it so I thought tonight was as good as any to give him a first chance, and he did a great job.”
Capra spelled Panthers lefty starter Brian Geraghty and entered a dicey situation. In a scoreless tie, Newell summoned his sophomore right-hander from the bullpen to face Somerville’s No. 3 hitter Connor DePace with runners at first and second and one away in the visiting sixth inning.
Capra’s second pitch bounced past catcher Josh Jankowski and rolled to the backstop, allowing both runners to advance into scoring position.
“I had a little bit of butterflies,” said Capra who’d been sidelined with a fractured Hamate bone in his pitching hand. “I told coach I was ready to go if he needed me.”
DePace ripped a two-strike fastball back up the middle and into center field driving home Brendan Sheh and giving the Pioneers a 1-0 lead.
Capra then walked cleanup hitter Eric Ciresa to load the bases with still only one out.
Newell showed faith in his young righty though, and stuck with him. Capra fanned Austin Markowski swinging and got Blaze Aranzulo to bounce out to second to escape trouble and retire the side.
“I knew I could handle the situation,” said Capra.
Meanwhile, Aranzulo was unhittable. The junior righty cruised threw the first 6 and 1/3 innings without allowing a hit in just 63 pitches.
Panthers No. 3 hitter Mike Fair cracked Aranzulo though. Fair drew a five-pitch walk with one away in the home sixth and advanced to second on a wild pitch.
After a mound visit by Somerville rookie skipper Paul Millar, Jankowski rolled over a hard-hit ball past a diving Pat Ryan at third base and into right field to end the no-hit bid. Fair was given the stop sign as he rounded third and the scored remained.
Next batter Matt Koskinen drove a soft liner off a the glove of a leaping Pete Butrico at shortstop and into center field to plate Fair and tie the game 1-1. Jankowski was thrown out at second by Sheh from center field waiting to see if the ball would get through the infield.
Aranzulo seemed to lose command after that. He walked the next two batters and loaded the bases with two away for pinch hitter Glen Boehme who was asked to provide a spark off the bench on a brisk night.
Boehme would come through in the clutch. In a tremendous at-bat, he fouled off three pitches and worked the count full before drawing a walk which plated Koskinen for the go-ahead run.
Aranzulo uncorked another wild pitch to the next batter, Alex Thul, and that brought home Nick Norcia for a 3-1 Panthers lead. Thul went down swinging to end the threat.
“He went into the inning with 63 pitches and ended up throwing forty pitches that inning,” Millar said. “He gets emotional. He’s got to learn to keep his emotions in check.”
“We were a little aggressive early. We try to look for fastballs, but (Aranzulo) was doing a good job of locating it,” said Newell. “We hit a couple of balls hard but right at people. I wasn’t totally upset about our approach, but I think (Aranzulo) got a little tired at the end and started elevating and our guys did a good job of laying off some close pitches and making him work.”
Capra had his work cut out for him in the seventh. After sitting down the first two batters with a strikeout and fly out, pinch hitter Chris Rossi drew a walk bringing the tying run to the plate in Sheh. Sheh rolled what looked to be the game-ending ground out to Panthers second baseman Thul, but a charging Thul bobbled the ball for an E-4.
That brought Pat Ryan to the plate with the tying runs aboard, but Ryan never got the bat off his shoulders. Millar called for a double steal, but Rossi missed the sign and Sheh was picked off by Jankowski to end the ball game.
“We’ve been playing better defense since the first couple games,” said Newell. “Our infield defense was tremendous tonight and (Jankowski) and (Koskinen) do a great job of seeing when the runner is getting a little too far off first. They set up some of those pick offs themselves. We’re starting to jell defensively so it’s good to see.”
Aranzulo was the hard-luck loser, allowing just one run and one hit but walked seven. He struck out five. DePace had both of Somerville’s hits.
Geraghty went 5 and 1/3 and was charged with an earned run, two hits, four walks and two strikeouts.
Somerville ran itself out of an inning on three different occasions, getting itself caught in three separate rundowns.
“They missed signs. They’re still high school kids,” Millar said. “We missed a bunt sign earlier in the game that could have moved runners up, but that’s high school baseball.”
Bridgewater-Raritan has won three straight and moves to 8-3, while Somerville falls to 6-3. Each club will be in action in Saturday’s Somerset County Tournament first round. The fifth-seeded Panthers will play host to No. 13-seeded North Plainfield and eighth-seeded Somerville is set to square off with No. 9-seeded Rutgers Prep.