Chris Lee has enjoyed a distinguished baseball career at J.P. Stevens High School, batting over .400 each of his first three seasons while eclipsing the 100-hit plateau.
Until this spring, however, Lee has not been known as a power hitter.
The senior outfielder homered three times Monday, including a game-tying two-run blast in the bottom of the seventh to help lift the 14th-seeded Hawks to a 7-6 comeback victory over 19th-seeded Spotswood in a Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament first-round game.
J.P. Stevens (12-13), which has won 11 of its last 14 after opening the year 1-10, will play Tuesday at third-seeded South Plainfield with the winner advancing to Thursday’s GMCT quarterfinals.
Tyler Yelencsics’ single to right with none away in the seventh off reliever Alex Christian plated Joe Siecinski with the winning run.
Siecinski, following a walk to Justin Wojciechowski that put runners on first and second, alertly stole third when Yelencsics squared and Spotswood’s wheel bunt defense failed to properly rotate, leaving third base uncovered.
The theft allowed the Hawks to take off the sacrifice and forced the Chargers to play their infield in and their outfield shallow. Yelencsics, who then launched his walk-off hit over the right fielder’s head, said he felt no pressure thanks to Lee’s heroics.
“His third home run of the game was unbelievable,” Yelencsics said of Lee’s blast that chased starting pitcher Chris Marlow. “From then on, we knew we were winning that game.”
Pinch hitter Alex Wallerstein led off the seventh with a single through the box. Lee, who clubbed a solo homer to center in the first and a three-run shot to left in the second, deposited a Marlow fastball over the left-field fence for the 6-6 tie.
“It’s always been a team effort,” said Lee, deflecting attention from himself. “I have no words. I’ve never performed like that in my life. It’s just one of those days where it just all came together.”
Spotswood rallied from a 4-1 deficit to take a 5-4 lead in the fifth on Jeremy Corrente’s three-run homer to right. Like Will Johnson’s RBI single in the fourth and pinch hitter Jeff Szatkowski’s RBI single in the sixth, Corrente’s clutch homer capped a rally that began with two away.
A lack of timely hitting was a key reason the Chargers (10-11), who have the distinction of being the only GMC team to defeat defending conference tournament champion Middlesex this season, entered Monday’s game on a six-game losing streak.
The momentum shift of Corrente’s timely home run left the resilient Hawks dejected but not deflated. Monday’s game was one they clearly would have lost earlier this season.
“We were definitely going through a rough patch,” Yelencsics said. “But we really got our stuff together and starting pulling together as a team. We got on each other’s backs a little bit, worked harder in practice and now we are on a run.”
Coach Dave Marzano, whose Hawks committed 24 errors over a four-game early-season stretch, has benefited from improved defense. The team’s recent run includes wins over GMC Red Division champion Edison, GMC White Division champion South Plainfield and Union County Tournament finalist Westfield.
“These guys never quit,” Marzano said. “To be 1-10 and then to come all the way back like they have is just unbelievable. We’ve just been battling and clawing our way back.”
Lee, who along with Middlesex’s Tommy Marcinczyk has been the conference’s most consistent four-year player, did Monday what is expected of big players in postseason competition.
“Going back to his freshman year, he’s always been clutch for us,” Marzano said of Lee. “He’s been doing this all along. He’s an unbelievable hitter.
“We just got on his back and he took us to victory today.”