Nutley baseball coach Robert Harbison isn’t ready to say his Maroon Raiders are close to playing up to their true potential. But after a rough start to the season, Nutley is starting to round into form right as the calendar turns to May and tournament play is about to begin.
In Saturday’s 10-5 victory over Kearny at the Hudson/Essex Challenge to Cure Alzheimer’s at Miller Stadium in West New York, Nutley showed some of the characteristics needed to make a run in the upcoming Greater Newark Tournament and state playoffs.
“Right now you’re concerned about playing well in the tournaments and I think we’re playing ok,” Harbison said. “We gotta clean up our base running a little bit, but defensively, we’ve been good all year. As long as we can throw strikes, (we should do well).”
The win was Nutley’s fifth in the last six games, a streak that has mainly been on the strength of a pitching staff that is short on experience as it has given up two runs or less in four of those games. To be more precise, it’s been Harbison’s bullpen which has shined of late. For the second time in five days, lefty Chris Pierro was dominant in long relief, pitching three perfect innings out of the pen with four strikeouts to close it out.
Pierro and the return of Joe DeLanzo (eight scoreless innings) from an injury that kept him off the mound to start the season suddenly gives Harbison two quality relief arms to use late in games.
Meanwhile, an offense that was expected to be a strength, came alive on Saturday, in particular in the fourth inning when it erupted for eight runs.
DeLanzo, one of Essex County’s top players, opened the inning with a double, followed by a Dylan Santos single. Brandon Lucia and Frank Contella each had an RBI before Santos delivered the crushing blow of the inning, a two-run double into the leftfield corner, scoring two and making it 9-3.
Santos went 2-for-3 with a walk, three RBI and two stolen bases on the day, DeLanzo was 3-for-5 with two runs, an RBI and two stolen bases. Lucia drove in two runs and Pierro went 2-for-3 with a walk and a run for an offense, which has struggled, but has the potential to put up runs like it did on Saturday.
“I’m not happy with where we are offensively yet, but we have enough bats that we can score some runs,” said Harbison. “It’s a short season, but can we turn it around offensively? Yes, but it’s gotta happen soon.”
Now at 8-6, Nutley has earned the sixth seed in the Greater Newark Tournament and will face 11th-seeded West Orange in the first round on Friday.
“Winning is more of a feeling than anything else and when you start to win baseball games. I think your attitude changes and you start to expect to win, instead of expecting to lose,” Harbison said. “I think we can be a challenge for anybody that we come across.”
The Raiders aren’t the only local team that has come on in recent days after uneven starts to the season. Lyndhurst has won four of its last five games — the most recent, a 22-5 victory over Harrison on Wednesday — to improve to 8-6 and keep its Bergen County Tournament hopes alive.
North Arlington is now at 6-6 after late-inning victories over Ridgefield Park and Hoboken as it heads into a big week with matchups against division foes Hasbrouck Heights and Becton.
Also at the Hudson/Essex Challenge to Cure Alzheimer’s, Bloomfield snapped a four-game losing skid when it scored seven runs in the top of the sixth inning to defeat North Bergen, 9-3. Tyler Bell went 4-for-4 and Nico Ong reached base three times for the Bengals, who are the seventh seed in the GNT and will host Glen Ridge in the first round on Friday.
Unlike Nutley and Bloomfield, Belleville did not earn a bye into the round of 16 and will need to win two preliminary round games to reach the first round alongside their neighboring foes. The Buccaneers are now halfway there after defeating East Orange, 13-1, in the play-in round on Friday behind 13 strikeouts by Mike Napolitano.
Napolitano also continued his stellar year at the plate, going 2-for-3 with two RBI. Belleville’s next GNT opponent is Newark East Side on Wednesday with the winner earning a spot against top-seeded and defending champion Millburn.
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)