There’s an old baseball saying that big players come up big in big games.
It’s definitely true when considering the fate of the Nutley High School baseball team.
The “big game” tag began last Monday, when the Maroon Raiders managed to get by pesky Snyder of Jersey City, 2-1, in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket and continued Thursday with a 4-3 win over Chatham to advance to the sectional semifinals.
The “big player” moniker definitely refers to junior right-handed pitcher Josh O’Neill, who surrendered just three hits and struck out 12 to earn the win against Snyder as well as junior infielder/relief pitcher Marty Higgins, who earned a save in the win over Snyder and earned a win in the game against Chatham while smacking a homer in that game as well.
Fellow junior Kevin Hogan also deserves the “big player” name by belting a homer in the win over Chatham, as the Maroon Raiders scored twice in the bottom of the seventh inning to pull out the dramatic win.
The victory over Chatham enabled the Maroon Raiders (21-8) to advance to the North 2, Group III semifinals against Somerville, a game that was slated to be played Tuesday afternoon at the Nutley Oval.
Veteran Nutley head coach Bob Harbison knows just how fragile life is in the state playoffs. For example, the Maroon Raiders managed just one hit against Snyder, yet managed to escape with the win. Three days later, the Raiders were one out away from elimination before rallying for the victory.
“As much as we didn’t hit, we still played well,” Harbison said after the Snyder win. “It was good enough for a win. We don’t want to address it or bring attention to it (that the Raiders had only one hit). We did remind them that it is the state tournament and everyone has a good shot to win.”
The Maroon Raiders entered the state tournament on the heels of a stinging 8-3 loss to Livingston in the championship game of the Greater Newark Tournament Saturday.
“We just knew that we lost Saturday and had to bounce back,” Harbison said. “Sure, I was concerned that there might be a letdown (after the Livingston loss). But that’s the way life is at this time of the season.”
In the win over Snyder, O’Neill was brilliant for six innings, but ran into a little difficulty in the seventh. On came closer Higgins who shut the door and secured the win.
“It was a start of the second season for us,” Harbison said. “We started fresh and moved forward. Maybe it helped that we didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. The last few outings Josh has had, he’s been very good. He realizes that he has some pretty good defensive players behind him to make plays.”
Harbison was more than likely scheduled to give O’Neill the ball once again against Somerville in the sectional semifinals.
“You don’t want to have to expect greatness every time he takes the mound,” Harbison said. “But this is the reason why he’s the top guy on our staff. I know he has it in him. I know he has the ability to be dominant.”
Harbison likes his pitching staff.
“If we pitch it and get a couple runs across, we can put ourselves in position to win games,” Harbison said. “We have four guys who can pitch. It’s nice to know.”
It’s also nice to know that the Maroon Raiders, as the No. 2 seed in the bracket, earned three home games as long as they kept winning.
“It’s nice,” Harbison said. “We feel comfortable playing at home. It makes it tougher for the team we’re facing. I think they believe they can win a championship and are willing to get there. The first win was important.”
The second win against Chatham was even more vital. Now, Somerville arrives.
The Maroon Raiders also won two games Wednesday, defeating Caldwell, then knocking off local rival Belleville, 13-4, at Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls, giving the team 21 wins.
It’s not a bad total for a young team, who should be a force to be reckoned with in 2019.
“Our top four pitchers are back next year,” Harbison said. “Everyone will be a year older and better. We’ve come a long way from the beginning of the year to now. We don’t want to dwell on the negative. We want to dwell on the fact that we keep winning.”
And who knows? Maybe the Maroon Raiders will be playing for a state sectional title on Friday.
There’s another local team with state playoff aspirations. Lyndhurst defeated Parsippany, 7-3, and then knocked off Leonia, 11-8, to advance to the semifinals of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II tournament.
The Golden Bears were slated to face top-seeded Madison in the semifinals Tuesday in Madison at 4 p.m.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”