LINCROFT – As A.J. Gracia raced towards third base with the potential game-winning run he glanced at the right fielder before making the decision to head for home, oblivious to the fact he might’ve run through his coach’s stop sign.
“I may or may not have,” a jubilant Gracia said, when asked he ran through a stop sign from head coach Pat Geroni. “Once I hit third, I kind of gave a little peek at the right fielder. It looked like he was still pretty far out there so I kind of just went for it. I’m sure I’ll talk to him (Geroni) about it after and he’ll tell me, I’ve got to at least look at him there. He (Geroni) had told me when I got to second to check my outfielders.”
Gracia made it home just in time to beat the relay throw from the cutoff man before sliding head first under the tag and being called safe giving Ranney a furious 6-5 walk-off win and its first Monmouth County Tournament championship in its program history.
Whether or not he did or didn’t run through the stop sign was the last thing on anyone’s mind as his teammates mobbed him at home plate to celebrate the thrilling win.
Down 5-4 entering the bottom of the seventh, Ranney’s number nine batter, senior right fielder Glen Cantalupo led off the inning with a chopper up the middle for a single.
“It set the tone,” Gracia said of Cantalupo’s leadoff hit. “He’s like a second leadoff man from the number nine hole. I had a lot of confidence he was going to get on whether it was a walk, hit, hit by pitch; anything. He set the tone for the inning and me and Cos (junior first baseman Ryan Costello) just kind of ended it.”
Gracia then drilled an RBI double into the right-centerfield gap to knot the score, 5-5, and putting him in position to score the winning run with no outs.
Costello jumped on the first pitch and drilled a single between the first and second baseman for the winning run. Costello also had a two-run triple off the fence in right field in the second inning and was robbed of a line-drive hit on a great leaping grab by Caseys' second baseman Christian Condon.
“I’m seeing the ball really well,” Costello said.
Gracia has benefited from having Costello batting behind him in the batting order.
“His bat is electric,” said Gracia. “Having someone like him behind me with a lot of pop like that really helps me a lot. I feel like I’m seeing a lot of pitches right now. He’s been great all-around for us.”
A University of Pittsburgh recruit, Costello is a Freehold Township High School transfer, who didn’t become eligible until after the 12th game of the season and has been a huge addition to an already powerful Ranney lineup.
“I was thinking about that coming into the box for my last at-bat,” Costello said about his first major contribution to the team since he got here. “I felt like, ‘If I can get a hit here, I’ve made a really big contribution to the team’. Walking it off for the Monmouth County Tournament title felt great."
Gracia was on the mound in relief of starting pitcher and Georgetown recruit Marcello Mastroianni, who went five complete innings giving up three runs (one earned run), six hits, three walks and five strikeouts, when Red Bank Catholic scored two runs in the top of the seventh to take a short-lived 5-4 lead.
After Gracia set the side down in order in the top of the sixth, Caseys' senior first baseman Frankie Scrivanic drilled a one out double into right field in the top of the seventh. Senior catcher Shane Andrus then crushed a ball over the head of centerfielder for a game-tying RBI double.
Following a walk to sophomore Dylan Passo, junior Matt Brunner dropped a single into short right-centerfield for the go ahead run, 5-4. Garcia got the final two outs without anymore damage to set the stage for the bottom of the seventh heroics.
When Gracia came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh his shaky pitching performance in the top of the inning was definitely on his mind.
“Redemption, you know what I mean,” Gracia said. “They got me in the top (of the seventh). I just had to get back at them in the bottom (of the seventh). I was, obviously, happy about that.”
Nerves got the best of both teams in the first inning as each school scored two unearned runs in the inning for a 2-2 tie.
Costello’s triple made it 4-2 in the bottom of the second. Cantalupo hit a slow chopper up the middle for a two-out single and Gracia followed with a walk leading up to Costello’s three-bagger that scored both runners.”
“That is the most electric bat in the 24’ class in New Jersey and one of the most electric bats in the country,” Geroni said. “He is a special, special hitter and he’s going to make a lot of noise in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) early. He’s just so, so strong and his barrel accuracy is off the charts. When he gets a pitch to hit, he hits it.”
The Caseys threatened in the top of the fourth and if wasn’t for a miracle grab by third baseman Diego Tavarez, RBC would’ve scored two runs.
Passo and Brunner each singled to lead off the inning and a nifty sacrifice bunt by senior left fielder Brendan Kopec put runners at second and third with one out. Condon walked to load the bases before sophomore Max Dantoni flew out to short right for the second out. Starting pitcher Alex Stanyek then skied a pop-up right in front of the plate that the pitcher, catcher and third baseman all converged on.
Mastroianni attempted to make the catch, but it went over his head and in-and-out of Tavarez’s glove who then dove for the ball and made a circus-like, bare-handed catch lying on his back.
“It was just a reaction,” Tavarez said, who was 1-for-3 on the day. “I kind of bumped into Marcello (Mastroianni) on the way in. I kind of just fell on the ground and just saw it. I kind of just of just stabbed for it and got it luckily.”
“That play probably saved us the game,” Geroni said. “He’s just a clutch kid.”
The Caseys added a run in the top of the fifth to cut the deficit to one, 4-3. Scrivanic lined a one-out single up the middle and advanced to second on a walk to Andrus. Passo then crushed a ball to deep center that Garcia ran down for the second out with Scrivanic tagging up and advancing to third on the play. Brunner then lined an RBI single to right scoring Scrivanic before Kopec flied out to deep right field for the third out. Mastroianni finished the inning but was hit hard and was relieved by Gracia in the sixth.
“That’s a great baseball team,” Geroni said, referencing the Caseys. “That’s one of the greatest teams I’ve seen at Red Bank Catholic. But the team down the street got the better of them today.”
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