by Andrew Garda

When it comes to baseball tournaments, it’s vital that a team has some great pitching to rely on.

So for the 6-seed Montclair High School baseball team, it was a relief to have senior Makhi Booker on the mound against the 3-seed Livingston Lancers. Booker was red-hot on the mound for the Mounties, allowing just one run on five hits as MHS beat the Lancers 6-1. The Mounties now advance to the semifinals of the Greater Newark Tournament.

“He was absolutely outstanding,” Mountie coach Ron Gavazzi said of his pitcher. “He pounded the strike zone, he worked in and out, he changed speeds. He got ahead of hitters”.

They’ll meet 2-seed Seton Hall Prep on Saturday at high noon—a perfect time for what could be another pitching duel—to see who will advance to the finals on May 20.

It wasn’t a perfect outing for Booker, but even when he got into a jam he stayed aggressive and fought his way through it and the second inning was really the closest to the precipice Booker got during the game.

Livingston kicked things off there with a base hit, and then moved the runner with on a sacrifice. Then, the Lancers managed an infield hit and Booker walked the bases full.

Booker refused to give up, though, bringing the heat against the next batter for a strike out and forcing a groundout to end the inning.

“He made big pitches when he had too, especially in the second inning - bases loaded one out, and got a huge strikeout there when he was down in the count. The comeback was critical,” Gavazzi said.

After the game, Booker said it was just a matter of remembering what his coaches have drilled into him.

“Coach always preaches to stay ahead of the game, next pitch, next guy. If you don’t get one out, get the next.”

That's just what he did, and the Lancers continued to have no luck getting any traction against the Mountie pitcher. They even seemed to take extra time getting ready to bat—tying shoes, adjusting shin guards and generally dragging their feet heading to the plate—in an obvious attempt to throw Booker’s rhythm off, much to the amusement of the MHS dugout.

It didn’t work, as Booker just got better as the game went on.

Booker was throwing a lot of pitches, though, and was edging toward the maximum throws allowed by the NJSIAA. That, and a run scored in the sixth, had coach Anthony Genchi getting reliever Henry Brooks warmed up in the bullpen.

It wasn’t necessary as Booker smoked the last batter in the sixth and then retired the Lancers in the seventh on just a handful of pitches to secure the win.

Gavazzi had a ton of praise for his pitcher.

“You could tell in the seventh inning when his pitch count was extremely high, he was pumping the glove as hard as he’s pumped all season. It’s just a testament as to how hard he’s worked over the last few weeks to get back to where he’s capable of.”

“It’s one I think he’ll remember for the rest of his life, about how great he was in this quarterfinal.”

The Mounties’ bats did what they could to make things easier for Booker, scoring six runs on five hits. Livingston was often their own worst enemy as well, as they committed five errors, including a wild overthrow from the outfield which scored Matt McGoey in the third inning.

Not willing to take chances, Gavazzi kept aggressive on the basepaths, often having his players on the move and stealing bases. The final run the team scored was a good example of this. Booker drew a walk and was replaced by a courtesy runner in the form of John Lewis.

Lewis preceded to steal second and third, then came home on a wild pitch.

Clyde Hunter slides in to score a run off a sacrifice fly from Ben Stagoff during the Mounties' three-run second inning.
Clyde Hunter slides in to score a run off a sacrifice fly from Ben Stagoff during the Mounties' three-run second inning.

Gavazzi said this victory marked the first time the Mounties have won a quarterfinal game on the road since he and Genchi started in 2006. The players knew that, he said, but were not deterred by it.

“I’m really proud of them to for becoming the first team in our tenure to get it done on the road in the quarterfinal.”

The Mounties will need to stay aggressive and smart as they face a formidable Seton Hall Prep.

“They are as well coached a team as you will find in high school baseball in the country,” Gavazzi says of the Pirates. “I have the utmost respect for the program, Coach Sheppard and his entire staff. They are a really good baseball team this season. It’s going to take an outstanding effort from our guys and a really well played, clean baseball game to pull off one more game here in this tournament.”

The Pirates (20-2 overall, 12-1 league play) are coming off a 6-0 win over 7-seed Verona where senior pitcher Jack Mahala threw a two-hit shutout. Luckily for the Mounties, they won’t likely face Mahala.

Of course, the Pirates won’t see Booker either and the Mounties staff has to decide whether to pitch Conor McGrath or dip into the well of other arms they have worked to develop over the course of the 2017 season.

McGrath just pitched last Sunday, so he is coming off short rest. The Mounties had two pitchers ready to go on Thursday, so they feel confident if McGrath can’t throw on Saturday that they have plenty of good options to go with.

Weather will also play a part, as there is a potential rainstorm on the horizon for Saturday. If the game is delayed a day or so, McGrath might be better able to pitch.

Whatever the result, the Mounties are ready and looking forward to taking on Seton Hall Prep on Saturday.