EAST HARTFORD —Ferguson Waterworks had to go the distance to get past the Meriden Merchants in the championship round of the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League’s postseason tournament.
Distance, and then some.
Ferguson, after forcing a winner-take-all finale with a 1-0 win over Meriden on Monday, won it all Wednesday night by getting past the Merchants 3-2 in 11 innings at McKenna Field.
It was an epic battle that featured a great starting pitching by Meriden’s Eric Polvani and tremendous relief work by Charlie Hesseltine and Ferguson’s Steve Landell and Taylor Kosakowski.
But two critical mistakes in the early going proved to be the undoing of the Merchants, who allowed unearned runs in the first and the fourth innings. Without those mistakes, the underdog Merchants, seeded fifth in this year’s tournament, would have won 2-0 in regulation.
With them, the Merchants allowed Ferguson to hang around until the 11th, where Carson Mislick, the team’s No. 9 hitter, delivered the game-winning hit with two outs. He bought home Jeff Criscuolo, who had led off the frame with a grounder into the right-side hole that eluded Meriden’s first and second basemen.
Derek Drag gave Meriden hope by leading off the bottom of the 11th with a double, but Kosakowski, who followed Landell’s six innings of scoreless relief with three of his own, retired the next three batters to give Ferguson its third straight Greater Hartford Twilight postseason crown.
“They’re a good team, they’re three-time defending champs,” said Merchants go-manager Rob Tencza. “They have great pitching and they don’t make mistakes. We made a couple mistakes and gave up two unearned runs. Even that last inning: It was a single, but two guys touched the ball and we didn’t make the play.”
“A game that goes 11, 12 innings, that’s how evenly matched were are,” noted Kosakowski. “It’s a good league with incredible competition. When you’re up against guys like Tencza and (Francisco) Ascencio and you’re in pitching duels with Hesseltine and (Ryan) DiPietro, you just know it’s good baseball.”
Mislick was the unlikely hero. Not only was he the No. 9 hitter, he was a left-hander going up against southpaw. Hesseltine, threw four-plus strong innings in relief of Polvani, striking out six and quelling frequent threats, but wound up with the loss.
“Charlie got the loss, but he really pulled through for us,” Tencza said. “We make that play at first and it’s nothing. He just goes out there and does his thing.”
Wednesday’s finale started in natural lighting at 7 p.m. and ended under the lights nearly three hours later.
Ferguson drew first blood in the top of the first by capitalizing on Meriden’s first big mistake: a third-strike passed ball. Given life, Chris Anselmo stolen second and scored on Tommy Meade’s RBI single.
The Merchants got the run back in their first at-bat. After a double play nullified a lead-off walk drawn by Trey Bongiovanni, Ascencio kept the inning alive with a double to left field. Tencza walked and designated hitter Andrew Magliola followed with an RBI single to left.
Magliola tried stretching the hit to two bases only to be thrown out.
The Merchants kept the bats cooking, though, in the second. Ryan Thayer and Hesseltine led off with singles and were sacrificed into scoring position by Kevin Hall. Mark Julius delivered an RBI single to left field to put Meriden up 2-1.
At that point, Ferguson pulled beleaguered starter Greg White and brought in Landell, a lefty. This proved to be a good move. Landell kept the Merchants off the board for the rest of regulation, retiring 12 straight at one point, including eight by strikeout.
Polvani, meanwhile, was also throwing well. Meriden’s starter was touched for the tying run in the fourth, but that tally, like the one in the first, was unearned thanks to a two-out error.
Polvani pitched into the seventh. He allowed five hits, no earned runs and one walk while striking out eight.
Polvani was relieved by Hesseltine with two out and a man on second. Hesseltine walked the first batter he faced, but got the next on a come-backer.
Hesseltine kept the score knotted at 2-2 in extra innings, twice working out of danger. The eighth was the real high-wire act. Dan Hickey led off with a double and then, for the second time in the game, a Ferguson batter reached on a third-strike passed ball.
Faced with runners at the corners and no outs, Hesseltine induced a fly out to shallow right, not deep enough for Hickey to attempt a tag. He struck out the next batter and got the last out on a liner to right that Ascencio was positioned perfectly to snare.
In the ninth, Ferguson’s Wes Ulbrich opened with a single, was bunted to second and took third on a wild pitch. The go-ahead run was 90 feet from home. Hesseltine responded with a strike out and groundout.
The Merchants, meanwhile, had a walk-off chance in the eighth. Tencza reached on a one-out single and managed to escape a pickle between second and third in the wake of Thayer’s high-hop infield hit. With runners at first and second, Ferguson lifted Landell and brought on Kosakowski.
Kosakowski, who had closed out matching 1-0 wins on Monday night that got Ferguson in the finals and then forced Wednesday’s finale, got the last out of the eighth, then set the Merchants down in order in the ninth and 10th.
Hesseltine, ever the gamer, kept Meriden alive until the 11th. The southpaw wound up striking out the side in that inning, but not before Mislick mustered home the decisive run.