After the oft-reliable infield defense which had bailed him out on so many occasions, including the no-hitter he spun earlier this season, uncharacteristically let Justin Willis down, the sophomore righty had to take matters into his own hands.
Only instead of using a fastball that topped out at 91 mph or the devastating slider that has become his calling card, the St. Joseph ace helped put an end to an epic pitchers’ duel against counterpart Zach Attianese with his bat.
Willis led off the home eighth with a double and courtesy runner Robert Ghiona eventually scored on Pat Geiger’s sacrifice fly as St. Joseph rallied for a thrilling 3-2 victory over Old Bridge on Monday.
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The game between the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division-leading Knights (9-8 overall, 8-4 division) and Falcons (12-4, 7-4) far exceeded its billing.
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Willis struck out nine and allowed just one hit, a second-inning infield single on which shortstop Travis Adams nearly made a spectacular play on a slow roller up the middle, bare-handing a ball off sophomore Rob Laconti’s bat before bouncing a throw past first baseman J.T. Shorter.
Willis, who had been cleated in Saturday’s upset of Hamilton East, an injury that left a couple of two-inch long gashes on his right ankle, was actually bleeding through his sock a la Curt Shilling while gutting out a near 100-pitch performance with Rutgers University head coach Joe Litterio in attendance.
He recorded 12 groundball outs and allowed just one ball – Jimmy Freel’s sixth-inning line out to right – to leave the infield.
After St. Joseph scored a run with flawless execution of a double steal out of a first-and-third situation, which Old Bridge defended nicely with a scissor cut, Geiger lofted his first sacrifice fly of the game to give the Falcons a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first.
Attianese, who allowed two singles in the inning and was victimized by an error, settled down, retiring the next 15 batters in a row – seven by strikeout – giving his teammates a chance to chip away at the deficit.
Old Bridge forged a 2-2 tie in the top of the fifth, parlaying two infield errors, a walk, a sacrifice bunt and a fielder’s choice groundout into a pair of runs.
Willis, who allowed just two runners the rest of the way on a walk and the team’s fifth infield error, was determined to end the pitchers’ duel.
“Justin said to me, ‘I’m ending this freaking game now,’ ” St. Joseph head coach Steve Bucchignano recalled of the conversation he had with Willis before the start of the home eighth. “I said, ‘That’s all right with me because I don’t want to go to the bullpen.’ “
After Willis led off the eighth with a double down the right-field line, Ghiona took his place at second. With first base open, Attianese intentionally walked Nick Johnson, who entered the game batting around .500 and who had singled in his previous appearance. Attianese then erased cleanup hitter Brandon Warick on a fielder’s choice as both runners advanced. With first base open again, Attianese intentionally walked Shorter, loading the bases for Geiger, the lone senior on a young St. Joseph team that has started as many as six sophomores.
“Last year Patty carried us for about the last three weeks of the season,” Bucchignano said of Geiger’s impact on St. Joseph’s run to a conference Tournament championship. “Before his at-bat I said, ‘You’re a senior. You’re the guy I want up here over anybody else. You’ve been in the most stressful situations.’ I said, ‘All you’ve got to do is do what you do best. Put the ball in play.’ But it’s not easy to put the ball in play against Zach. The guy’s got filthy stuff. He locates his spots, and he’s a great pitcher.”
With the count 3-1, Geiger knew Attianese had to come across with a fastball and not the 12-to-6 curveball that earned the junior lefthander a scholarship to the University of North Carolina and a Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American selection.
“I wasn’t trying to do too much there,” Geiger said. “Just win the game. A little sacrifice fly would do it there.”
Geiger drove an outside fastball to the opposite field, lofting a fly to shallow right, where James Gabriel perfectly lined up the ball, setting himself up to crow hop for a strong and accurate throw to the plate.
Gabriel unleashed a laser to catcher Evan Graulau, but the throw was slightly off line to the first base side of the plate, allowing Ghiona to slide in under Graulau’s tag with the winning run.
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Bucchignano said Willis, who started the rally, used to swing the bat like it was “a wet newspaper” but has worked tirelessly on his offense.
“This year he has a little bit of confidence in the batter’s box,” Bucchignano said. “That partially has to do with him playing every day (as an infielder when not on the mound). People only see Justin as a pitcher. You don’t see him here before and after practice hitting in the cage by himself or with Joe Marciano, our hitting coach. He’s taking pride in (his offense).”
Willis, a major Division I recruit, will certainly win more games with his arm than his swing.
He overcame consecutive infield errors with two away in the second, forcing Old Bridge to strand runners on the corners.
“All season I’ve relied on my defense and my defense has kept me in games,” said Willis, who was undaunted by the miscues. “At 2-2, I had faith in us battling back.”
After issuing a leadoff walk in the fourth on a full-count offering, Willis got cleanup batter Gabriel to climb the ladder on a 2-2 fastball, fanned Attianese looking at a 3-2 breaking pitch and whiffed Laconti to end the inning.
“Justin battled the whole game,” Bucchignano said. “Despite some borderline (pitch) calls that didn’t go his way, he kept his composure and battled.”
Geiger summed up the sentiment of his team best, explaining why St. Joseph had to come out on top for Willis.
“He works hard out there,” Geiger said, “and we want to get the win for him.”