Driving the baseball into gaps and over fences is unquestionably the sexiest facet of the game.
As Maloney coach Howie Hewitt queries, you see kids dishing out money to get detailed hitting instruction, but how many do you see going to defensive camp?
Yet with the postseason signaling a new beginning, coaches are quick to point out that pitching and defense are most responsible for paving the golden road a state championship.
Pitching — a high-quality ace as well as reliable depth — will be under scrutiny as Southington, Cheshire, Maloney, Sheehan and Wilcox Tech vie for deep runs in their respective tournaments beginning Monday afternoon.
Southington (17-3) earned a first-round bye as the third seed in Class LL. The Blue Knights will host the winner of the Monday’s game at Dodd Stadium between No. 19 West Haven and No. 14 Norwich Free Academy on Tuesday at John Fontana Field (3:30 p.m.).
“Pitching, defense, execution and hitting,” said Southington coach Charley Lembo, who has been to two finals and a semifinal in his three season on the job. “We preach [defense and attention to detail] in our program because pitchers will pitch to contact and not overthrow when they feel the kids behind them will make plays.”
Another deep penetration is possible for Southington with UConn-bound Joe Rivera on the mound (6-0, 0.73 ERA, .127 opponents’ batting average) and patrolling center field when either right-hander Kyle Cole (6-2, 1.37), Austin Bumbera (2-0, 3.09) or southpaw Drew Farkas (3-1, 4.05) start.
Rivera is batting .459 and has scored a team-best 21 runs.
“He should be a candidate for Player of the Year,” Lembo said. “He brings an intensity, a love of the game and a will to win. He can spot his [90-plus] fastball, his offspeed stuff is very good and he trusts the guys behind him.”
The Knights’ offense was bolstered at midseason when outfielder Liam Scafariello (.483, 4 homers, 15 RBI in 10 games) became eligible after transferring from Xavier..
Also in Class LL, No. 9 Cheshire (14-6) will test its mettle Monday at home against No. 24 Ridgefield (10-10) after clawing its way through the torturous SCC Housatonic slate. Should the Rams advance, they’ll either travel to No. 8 Glastonbury or host No. 25 Wilton on Tuesday.
The Rams also have pitching depth with left-hander Ethan Lonardelli (6-3, 2.69 in 8 starts), Kyle Waldron (6-1, 1.95 in 7 starts), Xavier transfer Liam Davey (1-2, 2.95) and an effective reliever in Adam Von Fischer (0.95).
Fresh in the mind of coach Bill Mrowka, however, are the errors largely responsible for Tuesday’s 11-5 loss to Xavier in an SCC Tournament quarterfinal
“We have to play more consistent defensively and pay attention to detail,” he said. “If we can focus and play defensive baseball, we have the guys who can swing the bats, but we can’t give teams extra outs.”
Dan Schock leads the Rams’ offense with a .420 average, six home runs, 23 RBIs and 20 runs). He has plenty of help from Ryan Pierpont (.361, 13 RBI), Wes Robertson (.328, 20 stolen bases) and Matt Hickey (.391).
In Class L, Hewitt leads confident Maloney (13-6, 11th seed) into its first-round skirmish at Ceppa Field (Monday, 3:30 p.m.) against CCC colleague Rockville (10-10, No. 22). A victory there would pit the Spartans against the winner of the game between No. 6 Torrington (15-5) and No. 27 Bethel (9-11).
“It all starts over; it’s a whole new perspective,” said Hewitt, not putting much stock in the busy week that just passed. “You have to generate the opportunities for things to go your way. It really starts with good defense and good pitching. With that we’re capable of hanging with anyone.”
A pitching staff with little varsity experience in April has come along very well. A lack of command in Thursday’s loss to Platt for sophomore Mike Charest (3-1) doesn’t subtract from his productive campaign. Cam Fahey (5-4, 2.45) tossed a complete game against Middletown after the loss to Platt. A.J. Hendrickson is 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA.
“We have three kids who have pitched well many more times than they have pitched poorly,” Hewitt said. “When the tournament starts, that’s what it’s all about and I don’t see too many teams with three kids who can turn in quality starts. Our three have pitched big games against quality opponents.”
Hendrickson, Kyle Hartenstein and Mike Gulino are the middle-of-the-order mashers who make the offense go. Leadoff hitter/shortstop Hector Gonzalez is an outstanding table-setter, as a batting average around .400 indicates.
Sheehan (13-7, No. 16) can never be counted out of the Class M race because of the vital SCC factor. Two losses to Class LL top seed Fairfield Prep by a total of three runs and home-and home battles with such Housatonic heavyweights as Amity, Shelton and Cheshire give the Titans a different aura than their record might suggest.
Sheehan will host No. 17 Ledyard on Monday. Last year, in the qualifying round, the Titans beat the Colonels 2-1 on a homer by Brandon Gauthier.
“The saving grace is always that we’ve been playing in the Housy and we feel it’s the best division in our conference,” coach Matt Altieri said. “If you wander out and play teams in the Quinnipiac (Fairfield Prep, Xavier), they’re very strong, and we scrimmaged Notre Dame.
“We never go into the state tournament feeling we’ve never seen a team this good before. It might not be the same for the other team.”
Altieri has his deep rotation lined up, but said he hasn’t chosen a starter yet.
“I have confidence in all three [Zach Hart, Brandon Rentas, Turner French], four if you include Brian [DeMaio],” Altieri said. “I got them together and told them, ‘You guys are making it hard.’
“Each has been throwing batting practice and we had a very good scrimmage Thursday against West Haven. One thing for sure is that whoever throws, all the guys will get behind him. They’re very team-oriented.”
Altieri cited the infield defense of third baseman Peter Abate, shortstop Sal Gozzo and second baseman Kevin Mathews for Sheehan’s solid defensive work.
For the same reason that Housy teams fare well, tech schools are always in for uphill battles in the CIAC tournaments because their schedules generally are populated by pushovers.
No. 8 Wilcox (16-7 overall, 14-6 for seeding purposes) does not benefit much from 18-2 and 10-2 wins over Abbott Tech, 19-4 and 9-1 wins over O’Brien Tech, a 22-1 conquest of Eli Whitney Tech, a 23-0 laugher against Windham Tech and the 18-0 vacation day Grasso Tech.
The Indians, who gave Berlin a scare in their Class L first-round challenge last year before bowing when the pitching depth ran out in extra innings, are back in Class M and will host No. 25 North Branford (11-9 ) Monday at 3:30 p.m.