MIDDLETOWN — In a postseason filled with dramatic comebacks, the Southington baseball team found itself down once again Saturday in the Class LL final at Palmer Field.
And despite trailing all afternoon and down to its final three outs, there was still a feeling of belief in the Blue Knights’ dugout.
Southington had won four straight one-run games en route to the title game — three of the walk-off variety. So, when Southington brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh inning, the Blue Knights looked to be in position to rally once again.
One problem: Chad Knight was still on the mound for Staples.
After walking the first two Blue Knights in the seventh inning, Knight settled down to finish a 3-0 complete-game win over Southington and deliver Staples’ second Class LL title in three years.
“We had that fight left in us that we’ve always had this year, but it just wasn’t enough,” Southington junior Jake Neuman said.
“Southington is a good team, so if I said I wasn’t nervous I’d be lying,” Knight said about Southington’s seventh-inning threat. “But I had to just calm down, and know I have a great defense behind me.
“It’s really hard to get through a baseball game without one or two tight spots. I guess the tightest spot came in the seventh inning. But at the end of the day we got those final three outs and we are state champions.”
Knight’s final four days in a Staples uniform capped off one of the most remarkable careers in Connecticut high school baseball.
Pitching the finale on just three-days’ rest after also shutting out Cheshire 3-0 in Tuesday night’s semifinals, Knight allowed just three hits Saturday. The senior threw 97 pitches and struck out 10 Southington batters, after using 88 pitches to blank Cheshire and strike out 10 Rams.
“Chad is our guy,” Staple head coach Jack Mcfarland said. “He came to me and said he wanted the ball. He said, ‘This is it for me.’ He took it and this will be his legacy.”
Knight is no stranger to big games. He led his Westport Little League team to Williamsport and pitched at the 2013 Little League World Series. Knight was also on the mound as a sophomore when Staples won the 2017 state championship.
Knight finished his senior season 9-0 with an ERA under 0.40. When not pitching, Knight can be found behind the plate. And as Staples’ leadoff hitter, he smacked 12 home runs this season.
Oh, the Duke-bound Knight was also drafted last week in the 31st round by the Yankees.
“Look, he’s a great player. He was the state Gatorade Player of the Year for a reason,” Southington head coach Charlie Lembo said. “He was great, especially on three-days’ rest. But we knew he’d be. It was just a matter of us needing better at-bats.”
Lembo said it was no surprise that Knight started the game on the mound. But Lembo’s players were ready for the challenge after watching Tuesday night from the stands when Knight blanked Cheshire.
Jack Meade hit Knight’s first pitch for a single down the right field line. Jake DelMonte followed with a two-strike single to right to put Blue Knights at first and second base with no outs.
Neither got any further.
Andrew Paradis flew out to right field and Knight struck out Jake Neuman before getting Jake Romano to fly out to left and end the inning.
“We got those two base hits and momentum, but then he found his groove and kept rolling from there,” Neuman said. “We saw him against Cheshire and knew he was a good pitcher.
“But we don’t really care. We are just going in there and hit.”
The game remained scoreless until Staples loaded the bases in the fourth inning and scored on a sacrifice fly. The Wreckers added another run in the fifth on an errant pickoff attempt and then scored again in the sixth on a wild pitch.
And once the Wreckers started extending their lead, coming back against Knight became tougher by the inning.
“When you are behind 1-0, you can still do some things — even 2-0,” Lembo said. “But when it was 3-0, with limited outs left, you don’t want to give outs away, or run into outs.”
“We knew we had to get the lead and put the ball in Chad’s hand,” Mcfarland said “We went through Cheshire and then Southington, two of the best programs in Connecticut.”
Keeping Southington off balance with a mixture of first-pitch curveballs and fastballs all afternoon, Knight retired 12 straight after allowing his third and final hit of the game to Bryce Worth to start the third inning.
Ending the fourth and starting the fifth innings, Knight struck out four straight. With Staples tacking on runs in the fifth and sixth innings, Knight was in cruise control until starting the seventh inning.
“He had mix of a curveball and fastball, and he did a great job of mixing it up so we couldn’t get any rhythm,” Lembo said. “Getting that first-pitch curveball for a strike put a lot of pressure on our guys.”
Southington’s final inning of the season started with five-pitch walks to Neuman and Romano, and prompted a brief mound visit by Mcfarland. But with nobody warming up in the Staples’ bullpen, it was clear Knight wasn’t leaving.
Southington got runners at the corners on a comebacker by Kevin McIntyre, which was fielded by Knight, who threw out Romano at second base. After Billy Carr struck out, Devan Bade’s ground ball to second base ended the game.
“He was going to finish,” Mcfarland said. “He’s Chad. He’s a problem-solver. He was going to figure things out.”
Yes, Knight figured out how to beat Southington – something New Britain, Darien, Fairfield-Ludlow and Amity couldn’t do during the postseason.