By KEVIN MEACHAM
meacham@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair High School baseball team walked a tightrope in the seventh inning of Sunday's Greater Newark Tournament first-round game. But pitcher Makhi Booker and infielders Matt McGoey and Danny Banks kept themselves balanced in order to propel the Mounties forward.

After Bloomfield brought the tying run to the plate following back-to-back errors, McGoey, Banks and Dylan Wright combined on a 5-4-3 double play, and Booker struck out the last batter to preserve Montclair's 4-1 victory on a chilly, rainy afternoon at Woodman Field.

The sixth-seeded Mounties (8-8) advance to the GNT quarterfinals this Thursday afternoon, May 11, where they will play the winner of Monday afternoon's Livingston/Montclair Kimberley tilt. If Livingston wins, the Mounties will travel there; if MKA pulls the upset, it will be a cross-town battle at Woodman.

Sunday's game had a bit of a deja vu feel to it, given the Bengals' 6-4 win on April 19 in which they rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh.

This time around, the Mounties held firm despite a pair of self-inflicted wounds. The first two Bloomfield batters in the seventh reached on infield errors, and Booker fell behind the next batter, 2-0. But the Mounties' veteran hurler induced a hard grounder right at McGoey, who started a textbook around-the-horn double play. Booker then retired the last Bengal hitter on three pitches.

"It showed mental toughness that the kids were able to bounce back and not allow those errors to get in their head," coach Ron Gavazzi said. "That was a pressure-packed situation. But it shows how all of those guys, Makhi, Matt, Danny, how much they've grown."

The happy ending ensured that sophomore starting pitcher Conor McGrath's excellent 5 2/3 innings stood up to earn his second win of the season. Despite the wet, unseasonably cool conditions, McGrath gave up just 1 run on 7 hits, all singles, while striking out 7 and walking 2. Booker took care of the final four outs without allowing a base hit.

Offensively, MHS managed just four hits against Bloomfield ace Manny Corporan, but Gavazzi complimented the team for making the most of them.

"I thought we were able to get the ball down on the ground against [Corporan], and we were able to get on base in a number of different ways," Gavazzi said. "Our guys did a nice job running the bases, laying down bunts, executing in key spots. Offense isn't always just about hitting, and it was nice to see us execute the game plan."

The Mounties pushed across an unearned run in the first inning, as a Booker ground ball was misplayed with two outs, scoring McGrath from second base.

MHS then added two more runs in the second inning. Banks led off the second frame with a walk, and catcher Dylan Scarfo executed a hit-and-run perfectly, drilling an double down the left-field line. Courtesy runner Tobin Willms moved to third on Ben Stagoff-Belfort's sacrifice bunt, scoring on McGrath's slow-rolling groundout to the first baseman.

The pesky, 11th-seeded Bengals (5-13) scored their lone run on Kyle Tice's bloop RBI single in the third inning. But McGrath escaped a bases-loaded jam later in the same frame; he would go on to leave 9 Bloomfield runners on base.

"The rain made it tough to control my off-speed pitches early on today," McGrath said. "But the big key was to locate my fastball, and I was able to get the off-speed back working in the later innings."

McGoey, the only Montclair player with multiple hits (2-for-3), tacked on a run in the third when the Mounties executed a double-steal, Dylan Wright taking second and allowing McGoey to head home.

Bloomfield managed to get two runners on in both the fourth and fifth innings, but were unable to convert. A leadoff single in the sixth was also for naught, as Booker came on to record the last out.

Prior to Thursday's GNT quarterfinal, Montclair will play a pair of Super Essex Conference-American Division games -- a Monday afternoon home game against Nutley followed by a Tuesday road trip to Bloomfield. Both games are set for 4 p.m.

The GNT semifinals are scheduled for a doubleheader on Saturday, May 13, at Belleville High School, beginning at 11 a.m. The championship game will be Saturday, May 20, also at Belleville.

Read more in the Thursday, May 11 issue of the Montclair Local.