MERIDEN — Tuesday night’s American Legion matchup between Cheshire and Southington was truly a clash of the titans.
The Zone 3 rivals grinded out 12 scoreless innings of baseball over 3½ hours at Ceppa Field before Southington came away with a 5-0 victory to win the South Division super regional.
A bases-loaded walk drawn by Brayden Cooney cracked the deadlock. A grand slam by Jeremy Mercier, who also earned the win with six-plus innings of relief, was the exclamation point.
“That was a hell of a ball game,” said Southington head coach Marc Vanderame. “I always tell the kids if you like baseball, this is it: a 13-inning game to go to the state championship. Two great teams equally matched and both teams played their hearts out.”
On the other sideline, Cheshire head coach John Escoto said, “We had a great season; we had 30 wins. I couldn’t be prouder of these boys and, you know, we got beat by an excellent baseball team.”
The pitching Tuesday night was absolutely phenomenal on both sides.
Cheshire’s starter, staff ace Ben Shadeck, pitched six scoreless innings and only gave up two hits while walking four and striking out four. He didn’t come out until he hit the 105-pitch limit in the seventh.
After Jason Krar pitched the first inning for Southington, Post 72 went to its ace, Ryan Sheehan, in the bottom of the second. Sheehan proceeded to pitch 5 and 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball.
Sheehan’s control was a little off and Cheshire’s patient hitters didn’t chase pitches out of the zone. Sheehan wound up walking eight. He made up for it by being unhittable, striking out five and not allowing a single hit.
“I was just trying to throw strikes and give my defense the chance to make plays behind me,” said Sheehan. “Just keep putting up zeros and, hopefully, the guys would scratch across a run for me. Just kept pounding the zone and didn’t let the hitters beat me.
“I didn’t actually know I hadn’t given up a hit until I got in the dugout, but hats off to Mericer coming in and picking me up like that,” Sheehan added. “I didn’t have my best stuff today and he was the MVP today.”
Mercier came on when Sheehan reached his pitch limit in the seventh. Cheshire’s Ian Battipaglia did the same for Shadeck. Both relievers worked in and out of trouble in extra innings. Both sides got runners aboard. Neither could execute in the clutch — until inning No. 13.
“Ryan Sheehan threw his [butt] off. He had to come out at 105 and then Mercier came in and pitched great,” Verderame said. “The pitching was unbelievable all tournament, between [Nick] Borkowski, [Ryan] Henderson and Sheehan. [Cheshire] was the No. 1 team in the state and they didn’t score off of us in 20 innings, that’s how great the pitching was.”
Henderson shutout Cheshire 4-0 in the second round of the super regional on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Sheehan and Mercier were so effective that Cheshire went 10 innings without getting a hit. Shadeck singled into right field in the bottom of the first off Krar. Cheshire’s next hit didn’t come until the bottom of the 11th inning, when Ryan Cyr hit a grounder into the hole between third base and shortstop for an infield single.
In all, Cheshire was held to three hits over 13 innings.
To put into perspective how impressive Southington’s pitching was, keep in mind Cheshire was coming off of a 13-0 win against Naugatuck on Monday. Cheshire also advanced out of pool play outscoring opponents 27-3 over three games.
Pitching may have been the story Tuesday, but how Southington pulled ahead was truly the highlight. A single by Tyler Cyr and a walk to Dan Topper, followed by Dylan Chiaro’s sacrifice bunt, put two runners in scoring position with one out.
Cheshire reliever Ben Schena induced a pop-up for the second out, but then walked Brandon Kohl to load the bases for Cooney.
During Cooney’s at-bat, Cyr was nearly picked off at third base. He got back to the bag safely, though, and trotted home with the first run of the game when Cooney drew his walk.
“It felt really good to score that first run,” said Cyr. “Brayden was have a really good at-bat and they weren’t really throwing strikes. He went up there trying to be a team player to get the run in. I was happy to start the inning, get up there and score.”
With Southington up one run, Mercier came up to hit with the game still very much in the balance. That changed in a heartbeat. Mercier swung at the very first pitch and everyone still on hand at Ceppa knew the ball was gone the second it left the bat.
Mercier’s towering grand slam to left field put Southington up 5-0, leaving Cheshire with a daunting task in the bottom of the 13th. Mercier, still on the mound, followed up his heroic top half of the inning by working a 1-2-3 bottom half to finish Cheshire off.
“Coming up in the 13th, we had the run, so we were looking for insurance,” Mercier said. “Just trying to get another run in and I went up looking for a pitch to drive. It was one of the very few times that you’ll feel that. It doesn’t feel real as you’re rounding the bases — like, ‘Wow, that actually went over.’”
“Jeremey Mercier: time and time again in the big spot. Kid’s got no pulse; no pressure for him,” said Vanderame. “It was unbelievable to get that first run and break the tie after 13 innings. Then Mercier delivered the dagger after how long he had been pitching. The kids were exhausted. We needed somebody to make a play and Jeremy Mercier did.”
“Kudos to them,” said Escoto. “They’re an excellent baseball team. They don’t make mistakes and we don’t make mistakes either. Going down the stretch, by losing to them the other day, we had to use extra pitchers and we just ran out of pitching in the end.”
Both teams were full of energy throughout the 3½-hour war, with neither coach wavering in their decision making or leadership. Southington players showed their appreciation for Vanderame by sneaking up behind him and giving him the celebratory post-game Gatorade shower as he was being interviewed.
“It was a war of attrition,” said Vanderame. “Nobody scored. It was like, ‘Who’s going to strike first?’ When you’re a visitor, if you don’t score in extra innings, you’ve got to stop the home team twice.
“This is a comeback team, a comeback group,” Verderame added. “We came back against Hamden [in pool play], we answered the bell against Trumbull [in the pool final] and we just came back against the No. 1 team in the state, showing that we’re the No. 1 team in the state. It’s a testament to these kids’ heart. They’ve grown up as a team and shown they’ve got the hearts of champions. Hopefully, this weekend, we will be.”
Southington, now 26-9, will look to continue playing its exciting, gritty brand of baseball in the best-of-three state championship series back at Ceppa Field starting on Friday. Post 72 will play at 6:30 p.m. against the winner of RCP and Ellington, who met in a winner-take-all North Division super regional final Wednesday night at Muzzy Field.
As for Cheshire, its season came to an end at 30-5. The Zone 3 champs were a dominant force not only in the summer, but in the spring. Most of the players were on the Cheshire High team that won the CIAC Class LL championship and earned the state’s overall No. 1 ranking.
Although Tuesday’s loss surely stings, it’s likely to build character.
“Baseball’s a game of failure. You’re not going to out there every time and get a win,” said Shadeck. “More importantly, it’s life. You’re not going to win every time in life and you’re not going to lose every time in life. You just have to battle through and keep positive.
“I’m happy with these guys,” the rising high school senior added. “Some are returning freshmen from college and they’re all awesome guys. Forming bonds with people really, my first varsity season, this has been one to remember.”