Cranford captures Group 3 crown
When Dennis McCaffery arrived at the mound to check on the status of Ryan Williamson in the bottom of the seventh, the Cranford coach wanted to reassure his junior left-hander that he had a reliever in mind just in case of an emergency.
“He offered to pitch,” Williamson said of McCaffery’s suggestion. “I love him. His talks are, honestly, really good for me. He’s a character and a great guy.”
Indirectly, McCaffery did provide some relief. His decision to go with the comic variety was the perfect choice under the conditions, a reminder that no matter how thick the tension might be, to keep the idea of having some fun paramount was essential in order to complete an impeccable job.
The joke hit its mark, as did Williamson.
Having yielded a walk and single to put runners on the corners with one out and fallen behind Freehold Borough’s Mike Bolton, 1-0, prior to McCaffery’s conference, Williamson instantly reclaimed the form that made him so dominant on the hill. He wrapped up his stellar two-pitch performance with a pair of strikeouts to complement the powerful support provided by his longtime batterymate, junior catcher Chris Folinusz, as Cranford, No. 6 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, registered a 4-1 victory over Freehold Borough in the NJSIAA Group 3 state championship at Toms River South.
“Whenever he comes to mound, he ends up joking around and gives you something to smile about,” Folinusz added. “He always knows how to calm us down and relieve all the pressure.”
“Ryan is obviously a talented kid,” McCaffery said. “He gave up two hits in the state championship. He did a great job. But, if there’s a moment that can be a little lighter, we have our fun and get after it when we have to.”
Another thing that Cranford, which won its fourth state title and second in three years, gets after is exposing mistakes. Make an error, the Cougars will make you pay. Leave a pitch up, and a slugger like Folinusz becomes a magician and makes the baseball disappear.
Twice, Folinusz unloaded on pitches up in the zone. In the fourth, with Cranford (22-4) leading 1-0, Freehold Borough starter Jake Yanez hung an off-speed pitch that the 6-3, 215-pounder launched for a solo shot to center that easily cleared the school roof and may have landed somewhere in the sand in Seaside Park.
“That was a pitch I wasn’t waiting back on,” said Folinusz, who put the finishing touch on a remarkable campaign in which he hit .520 with 38 hits and 46 RBI. “My eyes got big, I threw my hands at it and it just kept going. I couldn’t ask for much more.”
But, indeed, Folinusz had more in store. He led off the sixth with a towering blast that vanished into the trees beyond the fence in left to make it 4-1. The home run was the eighth of the season for Folinusz.
The two blasts were about the only pitches Yanez might want back. Working on three days rest after going 10 innings while getting a no decision in Freehold Borough’s 2-1 win over Hammonton on Tuesday in a 13-inning marathon, Yanez showed no sign of fatigue in tossing a four-hitter on 74 pitches. The junior southpaw struck out two and walked one.
“He pitched terrific,” Freehold Borough coach Jon Block said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more from him.”
Sean Feeney touched Yanez for a one-out triple in the top of the first and scored on a ground out by Anthony DiFrancesca to put Cranford in front early. In the fifth, Johnny Oblachinski reached on an error, hustled to third on an errant pickoff try and scored on Feeney’s sacrifice fly to extend the lead to 3-0.
Freehold Borough got a run back in the bottom of the fifth. Cody Reilly drew a leadoff walk and raced all the way to third when Ed Zaleski’s bunt was thrown away. Reilly scored on a ground out by Jason Lundy.
But, that was about all Williamson, who has already made a verbal commitment to North Carolina State, was willing to concede. He retired a string of six straight going into the seventh, including a nine-pitch sixth where he set down the Colonials in order. He masterfully accentuated is fastball with a late-arriving slow curve en route to fanning nine against three walks.
“It was a really hot day so I guess I had to use my legs a little more and I wasn’t following through on it,” Williamson said of his curve, which showed up emphatically in the fourth when he broke one off for a strikeout and a few more over the balance of the game to enhance his fastball. “As the game progressed, it got better. The break was sharper.”
“I’ve been playing with Ryan since I was seven years old,” Folinusz said. “He’s unbelievable, but we’ve come to expect it from him. His curveball wasn’t tight, but he was using two-seams and four-seams inside. Coming from the left side in the real high 80s makes him hard to hit against. He threw a great game. But, he does that all the time.”
For Freehold Borough, just the chance to compete in a state final, was both unforeseen but also rewarding. A cast that entered the post season as the eighth seed only to claim the program’s first Central Jersey sectional title since 1966 caught fire at the right time and with a solid nucleus of juniors, can build off its inspiring charge.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of each and every one of them,” Block said of his gritty group. “We experienced what a state final is like thanks to a heck of a run. Cranford is a well-coached team. You have to play a near-perfect game to beat them.”
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner