While ‘small ball’ is not usually how the South Plainfield High School baseball team operates, coach Anthony Guida says it is something he preaches at every practice.
The Tigers finally bought into the small ball approach on Wednesday against rival John F. Kennedy, as they used a sacrifice fly in the first inning and an RBI groundout in the third to build a lead for starting pitcher AJ Celentano.
Celentano took it from there, compiling a five-hit shutout and leading South Plainfield to a 3-0 victory and a berth in the NJSIAA North 2 Group III sectional final.
“There were missed opportunities earlier in the season that we did not capitalize on, and we lost a few games that way,” Guida said. “The sacrifice fly was hit hard, the little groundout was not. But it’s small ball and it gets the job done. Luckily, we did that and got a couple runs early in the game. And then our defense took the game over.”
John F. Kennedy, which beat South Plainfield a week ago in the GMC Tournament, snapped an eight-game winning streak with the loss, and an offense that had been very much alive recently just could not get the big hit when they needed it most. JFK stranded two baserunners in the second, fourth, and fifth innings.
“They’re a great hitting team,” Celentano said of JFK. “The last time I pitched here against them, they were rocking fly balls all over the place. I just kept them on the ground today, kept the ball low. I let the defense work and they all made some nice plays out there.”
Celentano, who will be pitching at Division I St. Peter’s next season, stayed calm and collective while working his way out of jams. In a performance that his coach deemed “gutsy,” the Tigers ace threw 88 pitches and saved his best for last in a 1-2-3 seventh.
“(AJ) was talking about this start for two days, he couldn’t wait for it,” Guida said. “He had a good game plan in his mind. We knew defense and pitching were going to have to be our strong points, and today they were.”
Right fielder Quinn Cochrane wasted no time getting South Plainfield on the board, hitting a screamer to right field that was deep enough to plate the first run. In the third, centerfielder Aidan McDermott drove in Taylor Born with an RBI-grounder after Born hit a double to left-center and moved to third base on a wild pitch. Nick Muglia provided some insurance two innings later with a looping single to left field.
Although outshined by his counterpart, John F. Kennedy starting pitcher Joseph Stone threw well enough to win. Stone was unable to help his own cause with two outs in the fifth, however, grounding out to shortstop with runners on first and third.
South Plainfield, the second seed in the North 2 Group III bracket, will move on to play either No. 1 Cranford or No. 4 Mendham on Friday in the championship.
“Definitely Cranford,” Celentano said when asked for his preferred opponent. “We wanted Cranford. That’s the top seed.”