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In wild finish, Phillipsburg baseball snags 'enormous' win vs. North Hunterdon

After struggling to pick up divisional wins over the last five years, the Phillipsburg baseball team had a golden opportunity Thursday when it took an 8-2 lead on North Hunterdon in the third inning.

It nearly slipped through the Stateliners’ fingers, but then it fell into the glove of a diving Nick McAuliffe.

Clinging onto a one-run lead with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, the junior pitcher laid out to snag a squeeze bunt just before it could hit the ground. Then on one knee, McAuliffe tossed the ball back to Garrett DuPont at third base to complete the double play, and with it, one wild 9-8 win over the host Lions in Skyland Conference, Raritan Division action.

“That was nuts,” Phillipsburg coach Dylan Sapir said. “I turned to my coaches (in the dugout) and said, ‘Hey, let’s hope they squeeze and pop into a double play.’ I didn’t think my pitcher was going to lay out and dive to catch it, but that’s something else.”

“Pretty athletic play by a pretty un-athletic guy, to be honest with you,” Sapir added with a laugh.

McAuliffe wasn’t expecting the squeeze bunt on that pitch, but once it kicked into action, he was seemingly unfazed by how everything played out.

“The guy at third was running home and I decided to make a double play, game over,” McAuliffe said.

Mission accomplished.

“Outstanding play,” North Hunterdon coach Mike Kane said.

The win was even crazier given how the Stateliners (7-4) lost a six-run lead and then got it back in the top of the seventh. After singles from DuPont and Zach Troxell, DuPont was at third base with one out when Nick Helman struck out on a pitch in the dirt.

Helman took off for first base, though, on the dropped third strike and after a look back at DuPont, Lions catcher John Macce threw to first base to get the second out. DuPont broke for home at exactly the right moment, though, and slid home before Macce could slap the tag on him.

“I tell the guys, I’m not going to get mad at them if they’re aggressive,” Sapir said. “(DuPont) saw an opportunity and he took it. Good job by a senior leader.”

Kane had summoned Old Dominion recruit Matt Busher to pitch to Helman in an attempt to strand the go-ahead run at third base via the punch-out. The plan worked halfway.

“I brought him in to do exactly that: get the strikeout,” Kane said. “Unfortunately … I gotta say, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a guy score that way, especially to go up by a run. They got lucky.”

McAuliffe was in an unusual position even before he left his feet to make the game-winning catch.

Typically a starter, he came on in relief Thursday and had been warming up as early as three batters into the bottom of the first inning.

Stateliners sophomore Alec Ricker got off to a rocky start on the mound but settled in as he worked into the fifth inning and left with the 8-4 lead.

“We kind of threw him to the wolves,” Sapir said. “We’re in the midst of a five-game in six-day stretch.”

Instead he gave Phillipsburg some much-needed innings during a busy stretch of their schedule, especially with a Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex quarterfinal against Hunterdon Central awaiting on Saturday.

“This was a great team effort,” DuPont said. “We identified this week as a tough week on the schedule. It was great to come out here and get a team win.”

Ricker’s teammates had provided him with plenty of run support. Jason Hawk and Alex Lahey each went 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs while Sean Morro added a pair of hits and scored three runs.

Helman, a fellow sophomore just recently seeing varsity playing time, also worked some tough at-bats despite not recording a hit. In the third inning with two outs and the bases loaded, he got himself in a 3-2 count, then fouled off three pitches before drawing a walk to score a run.

“We just wanted to take a look at him; we were struggling offensively and defensively, so we wanted to see if he could offer anything,” Sapir said. “He’s still young; he’s going to get bigger, stronger and better in the next couple years, but that was a good job today. He knows what he can do to help the team win.”

But North Hunterdon (7-7) made its push in the late innings, scoring two runs each in the fourth, fifth and sixth. Busher went 3-for-4 with a double, RBI and two runs scored while Macce and Grant Sible both homered in two-hit games. The offense ran dry, though, in the final inning.

While Sapir deemed the win “enormous” for the Stateliners, the Lions were left thinking what could have been.

“Kind of sums up our season,” Kane said. “We’re not consistent and we don’t execute when we can execute. … We were down 8-2 at one point and battled all the way back, so I gotta give them credit there. But we just couldn’t pull it off in the end.”

Greg Joyce may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GJoyce9. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.

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