It was a sure hit, the game was about to be tied.
That’s what everyone at Kaiser Stadium though Sunday night, even what Iona Prep pitcher Joe Finnegan conceded when Fordham Prep speedy pinch-hitter Paul Pache hit a ball deep in the hole at short with runners at the corners and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“I already put it through [to the outfield],” Finnegan said. “It was through in my head. And then I blacked out.”
Vinny DeMaria had other plans. Backhanding the ball nearly at the lip of the outfield grass, the senior shortstop turned and fired towards first.
“Once I caught it, I said I’m throwing it, whether I get him or not,” DeMaria said. “It was worth a shot.”
Pache slid into the bag and Iona Prep first baseman Pat Decea stretched out to catch DeMaria’s throw. It was a bang-bang play that couldn’t have been closer.
Pache was ruled out, Iona Prep had just booked its spot in the CHSAA Class AA title game with a 1-0 win over rival Fordham Prep and DeMaria was about to realize his worst fear.
“I can’t get stuck at the bottom of that pile,” DeMaria thought as a kid. “I’m going to die.”
And yet, that’s just where he was after his spectacular play inched the Gaels one step closer to their first CHSAA title since 2003.
“I would give up anything to get that feeling again,” the Iona College-bound senior said. “It was awesome.”
So was DeMaria’s seemingly impossible play that longtime Iona Prep coach Fred Gallo called a “game saver.”
“Vinny showed up at the end with a big league play,” he said. “It can’t be any better.”
The same could be said about Finnegan’s performance on the mound. The senior right-hander stymied arguably the CHSAA’s best lineup, scattering five hits in a complete-game shutout.
While he struggled with his changeup, Finnegan said his curveball was on and he was also able to throw a sinker and a fastball that got stronger as the game went on for strikes.
And to think, Gallo was set to pull Finnegan after the third inning.
“This was my game,” Finnegan said. “No shot he was taking me out. I could tell you that right now.”
Indeed, Finnegan and Billy Martin led the vociferous objections.
“The seniors almost attacked me,” Gallo said.
Gallo’s rationale, he said, was that Fordham Prep was driving the ball, albeit it at his players for outs. Still, he caved and told Finnegan to prove him wrong.
Finnegan did just that in the greatest performance of his high school career.
“He’s a very gutty boy,” Gallo said of Finnegan.
Sixth-seeded Iona Prep (17-6) scored the game’s lone run in the third. Matt Henry, who led off with a single to right – one of only three hits given up by Rams starter A.J. Pinto – scored when Dan Fischer reached on a throwing error by Fordham Prep third baseman Ryan Mahoney.
Mahoney’s throw pulled first baseman Jack Sexton off the bag for what would have been the third out. It was a call vigorously argued, but not nearly as much as the game’s final play.
Still, No. 4 Fordham Prep (15-8) had a golden opportunity to tie the game when Andrew Velazquez led off the sixth by beating out a bunt on another close call at first and stealing second. The Virginia Tech-bound star shortstop reached third on an error by Finnegan, who spun and tried to pick off Velazquez at second.
But the Rams squandered two chances to drive Velazquez in from third. Finnegan got No. 3-hitter Zach Leone to ground back to the mound and cleanup hitter Sexton ended the inning with a flyout.
When Robbie Lynch hit a two-out triple to dead center in the seventh, Fordham Prep had yet another opportunity. But after Kevin Flynn was hit by a pitch, DeMaria robbed Pache to end the game.
Iona Prep reaches Friday night’s title game and will meet the winner of Tuesday’s elimination game between Fordham Prep and St. Joseph by the Sea. An Iona Prep loss Friday would force a decisive game Saturday.
“It’s huge for us,” DeMaria said of reaching the final. “I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more excited. Since I came in here as a freshman, I played in the JV championship game as a freshman and we came up short. It’s nice to get two cracks at it. Hopefully we’re able to wrap one of them up.”
It would also be a final shot at the title for Gallo, who is stepping down after 31 years as head coach. That’s added motivation for the Gaels.
“We all want one thing and we have one more game left,” Finnegan said. “We can’t wait.”
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