Realizing Adonis Hernandez’s pitch count had already well exceeded a career high, J.F. Kennedy High School baseball coach Eric Mills was concerned about his ace’s arm.
“I spoke with him before (the seventh inning) and I asked him what he was thinking pitch-count wise and he just told me to give him the ball,” explained Mills. “That’s been his personality throughout the season, this game and in that last at-bat. He’s not going to give in.”
After his team scored four times in the bottom of the sixth to erase a two-run deficit, there was no way Hernandez, who confided in batterymate Tom Farley that he might be growing weary, was going to remove himself from Thursday’s Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament final against Monroe at TD Bank Ballpark.
The senior right-hander, who pitched himself in and out of trouble for much of the night, escaped a bases-loaded jam, retiring Anthony Parente on a controversial game-ending double play that concluded an epic 12-pitch at-bat as the Mustangs held on for a dramatic 4-2 comeback victory.
Hernandez worked the count full to 11 batters and threw 147 pitches, the last a two-seam fastball which Parente, who previously fouled off six two-strike offerings, dribbled in front of the batter’s box.
Farley stepped on the plate for the force at home and threw down to first for the double play. His throw hit Parente, who plate umpire Bill Kilduff called out for running inside the base line.
“Everyone including my players, my coaches and my fans jumped on that (call),” said Monroe head coach Pat Geroni, whose team stranded 11 runners, five in scoring position.
“The first thing I thought about was how we didn’t get runners in from third that we needed. You can’t leave the game up to the umpires. You take the game from the umpires and win the game on your own.”
The GMCT title was the first for J.F. Kennedy (16-11) after three previous championship appearances.
It took the Mustangs a total of 15 innings to solve Danny Marsh. The Monroe ace, who will continue his career at Wagner College, went the distance in a 10-inning 1-0 regular-season victory over J.F. Kennedy on April 17 (Hernandez hurled eight shutout innings that day).
Marsh, who took a one-hitter into the sixth Thursday night, lost his control in that frame, walking a batter to load the bases after consecutive singles and then uncorking a wild pitch that allowed J.F. Kennedy’s first-run to score.
With two away and runners now on second and third, Jose Sierra, who was 0-for-6 with three strikeouts this season against Marsh, held his hands back on a 1-0 curveball, blooping an opposite field two-run single to right that gave the Mustangs a 3-2 lead.
“I was very confident in my last at-bat,” Sierra said. “I knew I was going to get a hit. I was feeling comfortable with (Marsh). He came with a curveball and I just went with it.”
Mills, whose team rebounded from a 7-10 start to win eight of its last nine games, said Sierra’s clutch hit was a microcosm of seventh-seeded J.F. Kennedy’s remarkable turnaround.
“It fell in for us,” Mills said. “That’s the way it rolls. That’s how this (championship) run started for us. The ball starts to bounce your way. We got some big hits and great pitching.”
Zach Buchholz, one of four Mustangs who will play next spring at New Jersey City University, capped the rally with an RBI single to right off reliever Andrew Cohen.
Hernandez fanned 12 – including the side in the second and fourth innings – and completely dominated the bottom of ninth-seeded Monroe’s lineup.
The Falcons (13-13) seven through nine hitters combined to strike out in all seven of their plate appearances before No. 9 hitter Anthony Tagliaffero led off the fifth with a single through the box. Jon Rodriguez and Parente followed with RBI singles for a 2-0 lead.
Geroni said Monroe’s coaching staff charted Hernandez over a course of eight games and that the Falcons were able to decipher what pitches he threw on specific counts.
“I was relaying pitches to my hitters and guessing correctly at about an 85 to 90 percent clip,” said Geroni, noting Hernandez throws 65 percent curveballs (or sliders) and 35 percent fastballs.
“Adonis is a great pitcher. That just shows you how great his stuff is. We pretty much know what’s coming and we still struggled with him.”
Farley, who Mills allows to call the pitches, including Hernandez’s trademark slider, said Thursday night’s win was a fitting conclusion for a senior-laden team that features 11 upperclassmen.
“We made history,” Farley said. “We got knocked out of the (North 2 Group III) playoffs (with Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to South Plainfield), but we had this game to fall back on. Winning the GMC title for the last game of our whole high school careers is pretty special.”