When the organizers of the Hudson County Baseball Tournament, since renamed in honor of the late Ed “The Faa” Ford, put together the seeding for this year’s donnybrook for local supremacy, they couldn’t have imagined just how fitting the semifinal round would turn out.
The last four teams remaining, namely Memorial, Hoboken, North Bergen and Union City, form a great representation of the county baseball scene and will provide excitement for the championship game, which was slated to be played Saturday at New Jersey City University’s Gerrity Athletic Complex.
The semifinal showdowns were definitely intriguing, with old-time rivals Memorial and Hoboken facing off in one semifinal and Union City taking on neighboring North Bergen in the other. The two semifinal games were supposed to be played Wednesday afternoon, but were postponed until Thursday and perhaps even Friday, given the weather forecasts for more rain.
“It’s definitely apropos,” Hoboken head coach Buddy Matthews said. “Going back to 1989, that was the first time we won the county championship and we faced Memorial.”
Matthews said that he had to like his team’s chances because of the incredible pitching he has received in recent weeks from junior left-hander Kenny Roder.
Roder fired a three-hit shutout last Saturday in a 1-0 win over Bayonne, striking out seven and throwing just 77 pitches over the seven innings.
“I like our chances a lot,” Matthews said. “I would like our chances more if we were hitting more, but our pitchers [Roder and fellow junior Abe Groomes] have been giving us more confidence.”
The Red Wings are feeling pretty good about themselves, especially with the pitching of Roder, who has been unbelievable this season, cementing his position as the top hurler in the county. Roder has now struck out an astounding 94 batters this season while walking just six.
“His pinpoint control is just uncanny,” Matthews said. “In the game against Bayonne, he got to a three-ball count just once. I told him that he shouldn’t feel afraid to walk a batter, but he went right after them. And Kenny was on top of his slider as well. I just have one of those feelings we can make a run at it.”
Memorial head coach Tony Ferrainolo has certainly endured his fair share of adversity this season, undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy to wage his battle against lymphoma. Now the state’s all-time leader in coaching victories, Ferrainolo was on hand to see the Tigers upend Harrison, 10-6, in the quarterfinals and advance to face familiar foe Hoboken in the semifinals.
“Hoboken has had a great tradition as well,” Ferrainolo said. “It’s developed into a good rivalry over the years. One of us will play for the county championship. We’ve had some great games over the years, memorable games. Hoboken always had some outstanding teams. It’s an exciting time and it’s exciting to face Hoboken.”
The Tigers gave the ball to Jose Toribio, who pitched well against Harrison, and they also can call upon Bryan Vizcaino to pitch in the playoffs.
“We’re going to need both of them as we move on,” Ferrainolo said. “Jose showed me he can go out there and give us quality innings. Bryan has done it all year. They’re going to be the ones we’re going to need.”
Memorial has won an astounding 11 Hudson County championships over Ferrainolo’s storied tenure. He would want nothing more than to add No. 12 to his resume in what has been a very emotional and trying campaign.
“It’s something you really shoot for when you start the season,” Ferrainolo said. “Last year, we got knocked out early. This year, we just want to get to the finals and it would be a great accomplishment for the kids.”
North Bergen resorted to some trickery to defeat Kearny, 5-4, in the quarterfinals last Saturday in Harrison. The Bruins received great pitching from senior righty Azriel Andrickson, who struck out seven for his second win. Andrickson also pitched the Bruins past Secaucus in the first round of the tourney, striking out 14 in that game.
“Azriel’s been one of our better pitchers all year,” said North Bergen head coach Patrick Brady. “The key for him is throwing strikes low in the zone. He’s been hitting his spots very well.”
The Bruins won the game Saturday, pulling a maneuver that would have made former Yankees player, manager, and general manager Gene Michael proud.
During his playing days, Michael was known to pull off what was dubbed “the hidden ball trick” on unsuspecting base runners. Michael, while playing shortstop, hid the ball and made it look like the pitcher had the ball instead. When the base runner drifted off second base, Michael would apply the tag and the runner would be out.
Well, the Bruins did a similar move in the bottom of the sixth inning with Kearny threatening. Andrickson made it appear as if he threw the ball on an attempted pickoff play into centerfield. Three Bruins all made a gesture as if they were running after the ball, but shortstop Kevin Alonso, who has enjoyed an All-Area type season, had the ball all the time and easily tagged out the Kearny base runner to end the inning.
“We’ve done that about three times now and it’s worked all three over the years,” Brady said. “We want to create a little chaos and do a little yelling and screaming to distract the base runner. It works every so often. We just put that in the back pocket and pull it out when we need it.”
Brady was overjoyed to be among the fantastic Final Four.
“It’s a great feeling,” Brady said. “We started with 19 teams and it’s narrowed down to these four. We’re two wins away from a county championship. We’re happy to be where we are.”
Union City was the top seed going into the tourney, but there was no guarantee for the Soaring Eagles.
“Part of our focus all season was to get back to where we were last year,” said Union City head coach Chipper Benway.
The Soaring Eagles made it to the semifinals last year, only to fall to eventual champion Bayonne.
“It’s where our dream ended last year,” Benway said. “We had a 5-2 lead in the sixth inning and we had a lot of things go wrong. We went from being up three to down two [losing 8-6] and it was over just like that.”
Union City earned a berth in the semifinals by defeating Marist, 11-1, last Saturday, with Jose Matias pitching the gem. Matias has been a solid hurler down the stretch, winning all three of his recent starts.
“But [junior right-hander] Savon Williams has been just as good as Matias,” Benway said. “We really don’t have a No. 1 pitcher. The rainout [Wednesday] really doesn’t have a bearing on us. I still consider us as the newcomers to all of this. There is a geographic rivalry between us and North Bergen, no question. But I think it more shows the parity of the county, where we have all been beating each other up the whole season.”
And now, it comes down to the Final Four. Who wins? It’s a complete crapshoot, like it has been all year. But if Hoboken somehow gets to the title game with a rested Roder, it’s the Red Wings’ title to lose.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.