Middletown North Defeats No. 6 Cranford in G3 Final, Wins First Overall State Title


By Joe Zedalis | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com and Luis Torres | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

When was the last time a 10th-seed in a state sectional tournament won the whole ball of wax?  The official answer wasn’t readily available Saturday, but rest assured it hasn’t happened very often – if ever.  A charmed Middletown North team won the first group championship in the 113-year history of the baseball program Saturday with a 5-4, eight-inning victory over favored Cranford in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.

North (21-10) won the game on a Cranford throwing error in the bottom of the eighth inning.  The game, however, did include some controversy. Between the sixth and seventh innings, there was an extended delay while Cranford’s coaches were in discussion with the umpire and then with the NJSIAA-appointed official pitch counter.

Cranford coach Dennis McCaffery contends that Middletown North starting pitcher Colin Dowlen pitched his 110th pitch during a walk to Lucca Limeira in the top of the seventh and then illegally exceeded the NJSIAA’s single-game pitch-count rule when he pitched the first pitch to the next batter.

McCaffery told NJ Advance media several hours after the game that Cranford would be reporting the alleged pitch-count violation to the NJSIAA. The penalty, if found to be a violation by the NJSIAA, is forfeit.

Middletown North, which made only one other appearance in the state final, losing to Elizabeth in 1983, trailed 1-0 after the top of the first and 4-3 after the top of the sixth.

“We knew we were going to get hit in the face in this game and we were going to need to play for a run at a time,” said Middletown North head coach Ryan McCabe.

“This was a big win for the entire community,” McCabe added. “I can’t tell you how many texts I received from people I didn’t know. There were former players bringing their kids.”

Middletown North, which needed to scramble for a 3-2 victory over a 12-12 Robbinsville team in the first game of the sectionals, completed a history-making run to the championship with 12-straight victories. On May 11, North was 9-10 after a 7-4 loss to Red Bank Regional – the obvious low point of its season.

The Lions got everything they needed in the win over a 25-win Cranford team, which came into the game riding the crest of a nine-game winning streak.

Dowlen, who got a no decision, went for the first time all season on four days rest and was spectacular. North received clutch hitting, good-enough defense and a little something extra – great, not good, fortune.

“There was just a bigger plan for these guys,” said Middletown North head coach Ryan McCabe. “It was nice that things finally went our way. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The magnificently played baseball game finished with high drama, despite the cloud of controversy caused by the pitch-count issue.

After wiggling off the hook in the top of the seventh, Middletown North scrounged for a run in the bottom of the seventh.

The winning rally started innocently enough with a dribbler by Dowlen that went for single. Michael Weinbel then put together a terrific at-bat, staying alive long enough to rip a clean single just beyond the reach of the sprawling third baseman. Freshman Zach Hampton then hit a booming shot to dead center, which Cranford outfielder Jake Carter ran down two steps from the fence. Weinbel alertly tagged and took third.

Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery intentionally walked North DH Alex Lombardi. In the fourth, Lombardi had hit a line drive over the 365-foot sign in center.

With the bases loaded, the Cranford infield on the grass and its outfield moved it close, Middletown North sophomore Jason Quardt hit a one-hop bouncer back to the pitcher.

Cranford pitcher Sean Woodruff made a good throw home for the force out. However, the relay throw to first – with Quardt busting it down the line – was short of the mark, the throw skidding on the infield dirt, and handcuffed first baseman Tony Silva. The ball bounced over Silva’s left shoulder and into foul territory allowing Weinbel to score.

“A lot of guys might have not hustled down the line, but not Jason Quardt,” McCabe said. “There was no doubt he was going hard all 90 feet.”

“We didn’t execute on the last play and we lost the state championship,” McCaffrey said. “That’s baseball.”

Middletown North’s soft-tossing lefty Matt Adamson retired the last two hitters in the eighth after Dowlen got the first hitter of the inning. Unofficially, Dowlen threw 120 pitches, which was all a part of the controversy.

After an RBI single by Cranford starter Will Gallagher scored Lucca Limeira with the tying run in the sixth, the scoreboard at Bob DeMeo Field unofficially had Dowlen at 96 pitches – 14 left for the seventh. However, the NJSIAA pitcher counter and the scoreboard operator never coordinated pitch count numbers.

Dowlen, by unofficial pitch counts, should have been done after he retired Limeira for the second out in the seventh with 112 pitches. However, he was allowed to continue.

“Our count hasn’t been wrong since they started pitch-counting,” McCaffrey said. “We’re confident he shouldn’t have pitched to the last hitter in the seventh.”

“The (home plate) umpired told me I had 100-and-something,” Dowlen said. “I knew it would all work out. The only thing I wanted to do was close it out.”