Ward Melville baseball has been no stranger to big moments in close games this season, but all of them pale in comparison to Matthew Franco’s at-bat in the sixth inning Saturday afternoon.
With the Patriots trailing by a run, Franco belted a two-out, three-run home run that was the difference in top-seeded Ward Melville’s 8-6 home win over No. 8 Commack in a Suffolk Class AA elimination game. They will play No. 4 West Islip in a best-of-three county semifinal series, beginning on Tuesday.
“You love to win a game like this and a series like this,” Franco said. “There are no words to describe how exciting this is.”
“Matt Franco has always been a clutch hitter for us,” coach Lou Petrucci said. “Today they tried to put a fastball by him and you can’t throw fastballs by him. He’s a very good hitter.”
Commack had taken a 6-5 lead in the fifth when Joe Pellegrino hit a two-run single, before Ward Melville starter Max Nielsen (11 strikeouts, three hits and five walks in five innings) got a strikeout with runners on second and third to prevent further damage.
Ethan Farino, who homered in the first inning to open the scoring, came on to strike out three in two hitless innings of relief to earn the win.
“Ethan’s a great pitcher and we had full faith in him on the mound,” Franco said.
The effort allowed Franco and the Patriots offense to get the lead back, as Matt Maurer and Farino walked to lead off the sixth and scored on Franco’s homer.
“We’re just ready in these close games, no matter what,” Franco said. “We love it. We don’t want blowouts. We want close wins and great team wins.”
“This team has been doing this all year,” said Farino. “It’s just who we are. We’ve played a bunch of good teams this season and have fought back and forth with them. It’s going to keep happening, so we just have to keep showing fight.”
Ward Melville improved to 18-5 overall and 7-2 in games decided by two runs or less.
Early on, it did not look like Saturday’s game would be one of these contests, as Nielsen allowed just a single base runner in three innings and Anthony Pascale hit a grand slam to make the score 5-0 in the third.
“I had just missed a fastball and then he hung a curveball over the plate and I was just on it,” Pascale said. “That’s the best feeling in the world, hitting a grand slam in the playoffs.”
A strong relief outing from Nick Goldberg kept Commack (16-8-1) in the game, as the sophomore threw three scoreless innings before allowing the first two batters to reach in the sixth inning prior to being relieved.
The Cougars got on the board after Jake Krzemienski hit a three-run home run in the fourth inning and tacked on another run on Kyle Murphy’s groundout.
A large group of fans were ejected by the homeplate umpire during the game for unruly behavior and were escorted from the property by Ward Melville security.
Ward Melville will now get another chance to face West Islip, which beat the Patriots in each of the past two postseasons.
“We’re not ready to go anywhere,” Franco said. “We’re beyond excited to keep going.”