If there were any remaining doubts about the validity of Hasbrouck Heights‘ hot start to this baseball season, the Aviators answered those questions Thursday. Hasbrouck Heights, ranked No. 21 in The Record Top 25, defeated Weehawken ace Sal Mendez, 4-1, in an important NJIC Meadowlands Division home game. The win was the 8-1 Aviators’ seventh straight and represented an impressive start to an imposing three-game stretch that’ll teach them a lot about themselves.
They’ll face fourth-ranked Pompton Lakes‘ left-handed ace, junior Mike Coss, in a road game Saturday. Then Wednesday, they’ll likely encounter St. Mary’s top pitcher, junior right-hander Willie Krajnik, who struck out 20 Weehawken batters in a game last week.
“This is where we either show up or lay down as a team,” said Ray Espinosa, Hasbrouck Heights‘ senior right-hander/first baseman.
“We’ve done a good job of coming together, but a good showing against these types of teams would be big for us because these are guys we’ll be facing later on. These are the toughest pitchers in the area.”
Espinosa, a four-year starter, also has been one of the toughest pitchers in the area.
He improved to 4-0 and lowered his ERA to 0.91 by throwing a complete game against Weehawken, which managed just five hits off him. Espinosa also struck out eight batters to raise his season total to 23 in 19 innings.
With Espinosa, senior right-hander Joe Crabbe and junior right-hander Sean Waldron, Hasbrouck Heights coach Rocco Minichiello was confident the Aviators would have enough pitching to have a successful season. He wasn’t as sure about the offense, but the Aviators have averaged 9.2 runs.
“Last year, we were here and there with the runs,” Minichiello said. “We never got hot. We had a lot of .310, .320 hitters. We didn’t have that one guy that really got hot and sparked everybody else.
“This year we’re swinging the bats a little bit better. Maybe it’s because of all the extra time they put in during the off-season and all the emphasis we’ve put on hitting, hitting, hitting. We knew we had the pitching coming back, but we had to get the offense going. That’s probably been the most important thing for us.”
Crabbe, also a shortstop, leads the team with 15 RBI and was batting .481 entering Thursday’s game. Senior catcher Gabe Toledo was batting a team-leading .533, Espinosa was at .474, junior center fielder Mike Matteis was hitting .421 and senior third baseman Kevin O’Leary has 11 RBI.
The Aviators also have received significant contributions from first-year varsity starters Mark Shenloogian and Chris Verdi. Shenloogian, a senior left fielder, has 10 RBI and was batting .360 prior to Thursday, and Verdi, a senior designated hitter, has nine RBI and was hitting .400.
“Everyone has stepped up so far,” Crabbe said. “Some of the guys that are younger have stepped up, too. It’s been an all-around team effort.”
With seven starters back from a team that went 14-11 last season, chemistry also has helped Hasbrouck Heights reach its potential thus far.
“I think our chemistry allows us to have more fun,” Toledo said. “A lot of times people forget that baseball is supposed to be fun. The more fun you have, the more you’re going to win.”