Watchung Hills High School’s baseball team returned to Diamond Nation Friday afternoon where their 2012 season ended with a sudden, extra-inning loss to Hillsborough in an NJSIAA North 2 Group IV first-round playoff game.
Senior right-hander Joey Rocchietti was one of the many Warriors who boarded the bus stunned, but pledging to return to the sectional playoffs. Rocchietti pitched that day and he watched from the bench between innings as his team rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh only to see the season end when pinch-runner Evan Zadrozny was tagged out by Hillsborough catcher Tyler Ferretti on a bang-bang play in the eighth inning that left Warrior fans howling about the umpire’s call.
The only howling Friday afternoon was a steady frigid wind and, at times, the sound of Rocchietti’s fastball buzzing past Elizabeth batters in a 6-0 shutout that advanced top-seed Watchung Hills (22-5) to a sectional semifinal Tuesday at home against Skyland Delaware Division rival North Hunterdon.
Game time will be 4 p.m. with temperatures expected to be a few degrees warmer and much brighter than the dreary conditions the quarterfinal was played in.
The game was one of three moved to Diamond Nation because of poor field conditions caused by rain. The change in venue didn’t rattle the Warriors’ Manhattan College-bound ace and a very seasoned group behind him and in the dugout.
“The kids have a lot of experience and right now they are drawing on that experience,” Watchung coach Mario Diez said. “Like today, they had their feet on the ground, and everything was under control.”
Rocchietti, who pitched a perfect game Monday in a mercy-rule, five-inning 10-0 first round win over Piscataway, wasn’t that far off against the eighth-seeded Minutemen — seven innings, three hits, one batter hit – the leadoff hitter of the game, no walks and five strikeouts. He threw 78 pitches and kept his routine of completing the game in less than two hours, keeping his fielders very focused.
“The feeling last year was a lot different, a lot more people were there, we were a little more pumped up about that game, we were confident (this year), not underestimating them, but coming in confident,” said Rocchietti. “Last year that really hurt, we all wanted to get back this year.
They have had to navigate some obstacles since last season. Cody Hinds, one of the best catchers in the conference, has missed the entire season with an injury. Diez found he had colon surgery earlier this season, then had surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and has returned to health and returned to coaching weeks ago. The Warriors expected to win a third straight division title, and a Somerset County Tournament title. Those two objectives weren’t met, but they have won four straight and a sectional title is two wins away.
“”You don’t forget games like last year, but that’s in the past,” said Diez, who’s healthy and returned to coaching weeks ago. “You learn from it. What we always say is, ‘when you lose the game, don’t lose the lesson.’ The lesson from that day was to keep your feet on the ground, play fundamentally, and we’ll be fine, don’t get too over excited about this.”
The senior-dominated team knew enough to keep hopes alive when lefty Josh Felix set the first two Warriors down in the bottom of the first. Senior Tommy Giaimo singled, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on Kevin Sauma’s single. Rocchietti walked with David Dassinger coming in as a courtesy runner. The two bae runners moved up when Felix’ balked and James D’Annunzio doubled for a 3-0 lead. Evan Gourlay drove in the fourth run in the fourth with a two-out double and Sauma made it 6-0 with a two-run double in the fifth.
“We were just glad to get a lead early because we knew that kid who came in would have been very difficult to handle,” said Diez, referring to Minutemen ace righty Fernando Guerrero, who threw 12⁄3 innings in relief of Felix.