Senior first baseman Eric Giordano and cleanup hitter Joe Stone, who follow each other in the batting order, carried the J.F. Kennedy High School baseball team offensively for the first half of the season.
Their productivity, of course, wasn’t enough, and if the Mustangs were to make a run in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament, the rest of the team’s bats needed to come alive.
J.F. Kennedy started hitting throughout the order several days before the tournament began and continued its torrid pace Saturday, pounding out 12 hits en route to a 6-2 GMCT semifinal victory over South Plainfield at East Brunswick Tech’s Tiger Field.
“In the beginning, our playing on the field wasn’t joining our talent,” said Giordano, noting that the Mustangs rebounded from a 7-10 start to win six straight and turn their year around.
“I think now, at the end of the season, we are really showing what we are made of.”
The win was the first over White Division champion South Plainfield for fourth-year J.F. Kennedy coach Eric Mills, whose Mustangs reached the GMCT final for the fifth time and will try to win the school’s first title on Saturday against Monroe.
Seven Mustangs had at least one hit in a balanced attack and all but three starters had a run scored or an RBI.
Giordano went 4-for-4 with two runs scored and an RBI, while teammate Chad Barrall went 3-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI to back the six-hit pitching of senior right-hander Adonis Hernandez.
Hernandez (4-1) used a devastating slider to strike out seven and induce 11 groundball outs while avenging his only loss of the year. He yielded two unearned runs in the home fourth on a two-out, two-run double to Jeff Pellegrino that trimmed a 4-0 deficit in half.
The Mustangs (13-10) rallied for four runs in the top of the inning to snap a scoreless deadlock. Senior catcher Tom Farley ignited the outburst with a two-run single. No. 8 batter Jose Sierra (RBI double) and No. 9 hitter Pete Fiore (RBI single) followed with clutch two-out hits.
The inning’s first three hits – by Giordano, Barrall and Farley – came on full-count or 2-2 offerings, reflecting the amount of time the Mustangs have spent in recent weeks working on their two-strike approach.
Barrall gave the Mustangs a 5-2 lead with an RBI single on a 1-2 pitch in the fifth inning off reliever Kyle Dickerson, who replaced starter Tim O’Leary.
With all the other semifinalists starting their aces on three days’ rest, some may have expected South Plainfield to throw A.J. Celentano, the winning pitcher in Tuesday’s 7-0 second-round win over J.P. Stevens.
“This has been (O’Leary’s) spot all year and he’s been throwing fantastic,” South Plainfield coach Anthony Guida said. “He’s gotten the start every Friday or Saturday, so we weren’t going to change anything. He deserved it. He just didn’t have his good stuff that he usually has. He’s a darn good pitcher but he made some mistakes today.”
The Tigers (19-5), who had a nine-game winning streak snapped, had an excellent chance to chip away at the 5-2 deficit, putting runners on first and second with one away in the fifth.
Hernandez, however, whiffed cleanup batter Nick Muglia and Celentano looking at consecutive 3-2 sliders to escape the jam. Farley, who calls the game, signaled for both pitches.
“Very rarely do high school coaches let their catcher and pitcher call (a game), so all the credit goes to them,” Mills said. “Adonis has a great slider and he’s been throwing it for strikes on any count. He does have good velocity, but that (slider) is what makes him so dangerous.”
Hernandez, overcoming his team’s fourth error in the game, worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh, retiring Celentano on a groundball for the final out.
“I think they, without a couple errors in the infield, were the better team,” Guida said. “They did today what we’ve been doing the past few weeks. They played a next-to-flawless game.
“By far, the better team won today.”