SOUTHINGTON — UConn-bound ace right-hander Joe Rivera had one of the few struggles of his Southington High School career Tuesday in his start against Fairfield Warde in the Class LL semifinals.
Coach Charlie Lembo attributed Rivera’s lack of command (7 walks in 2 2/3 innings) to his inability to get a good grip on the baseball on that muggy day at Muzzy Field.
For his part, Rivera (6-0, 1.11 ERA, .144 opponents’ batting average) refused to use it as an alibi. He knows he’s going to have to handle similar challenges as his career moves forward.
But worrying about the past is fruitless, and when he considered the immediate future — a berth in the finals against Amity at Palmer Field in Middletown tonight at 7 p.m. — he grinned broadly at the prospect. By hurling less than three innings against Warde, Rivera had eligibility remaining for his final appearance in a Blue Knights uniform.
He agreed that right-hander Kyle Cole (8-2, 1.27 ERA, .186 opponents’ batting average) was richly deserving of the start, but recognized that his role tonight could well take on that of another reliever named Rivera whose first name hardly needs mentioning.
“That would be pretty cool,” Southington’s Rivera said. “But Kyle’s been lights out.”
Lembo acknowledged that Cole is his man. Whether or not Rivera sees action, he said, depends on Cole’s effectiveness and how well Rivera has recovered in the three days since throwing 97 pitches.
“Cole’s had a great season,” Lembo said. “He threw a one-hit shutout against Manchester [in last Friday’s quarterfinal] and I think he’ll do a good job. He has will, determination and movement on his pitches. He’s one of those guys who really wants to win.”
No. 3 Southington (20-3) has long been considered one of the state’s best programs, with a championship history dating back to 1955. Tonight, the Knights will be playing in their 12th title game. They’ve won three — 1961, 1994 and 1999. They’re appearing in the finals for the third time in Lembo’s four seasons on the job.
No. 17 Amity (18-9) is more of a Johnny-come-lately, but has been a Class LL force since the turn of the century. The Spartans have been to five finals in that time, winning in 2006, 2007 and 2013.
They’ve won two of three tournament games against the Knights in the 2000’s, including last June’s 4-0 triumph in the final. Southington ousted Amity, 3-1, in the 2012 semifinals.
Lembo doesn’t get caught up in rivalry minutiae, but has deep respect for the Spartans
“They have a great program,” he said. “The coaching staff (under head coach Sal Coppola) has done a phenomenal job through the years, so they do things right. A lot of their kids have gone on to play college ball. I hope people look at our program the same way.
“Rivalry? We’re two schools. Each team is different year to year. It’s not like the pros. They’re standing in the way of something we want and we’re standing in the way of something they want.”
Lembo is proud of the production he gets up and down the lineup.
Shortstop Joe Daigle (.314) generally leads off. Catcher Zac Susi (.343) bats second followed by center fielder Rivera, who is batting .400 with team-highs in runs (25) and walks (21).
“I’ve said all along that he’s one of the best position players in the state, too,” Lembo said.
Liam Scafariello, unavailable the first 10 games after transferring from Xavier, still found ways to lead the team in home runs (6) and RBI (19). He’s batting .472, carries an on-base percentage of .592 and slugs at a 1.083 ratio.
The fifth hitter — third baseman Ryan DeAngelo — went 3-for-3 with three RBI against Warde to raise his batting average to .385. The left-handed swinger challenged the distant right field wall at Muzzy twice, pelting it with a pair of doubles.
“I thought the first one had a chance,” Lembo said. “I looked at one of the photographer’s shots and it was pretty high up.”
Although DeAngelo was smoking at the plate, Lembo had him sacrifice when the first two batters reached in the fifth. He did so successfully.
“Everybody in the lineup is accountable,” Lembo said. “Even though he’s swinging hot bat, we wanted two in scoring position. We have confidence in the guys hitting behind him. That’s what we preach. Guys will do their jobs. In my mind, that’s how to build a team.”
Adam Wilson is likely slated for the DH slot. He hit for second baseman Nick Calabrese on Tuesday.
Left fielder Brett Shaw had the game-tying single in the two-run fifth. First baseman Mike Rogalski made a game-saving scoop to record the first out of the seventh. Garrett Gugliotti is the right fielder.
“It’s good to know that our coaches can turn a bunch of youngsters into a great team,” Rogalski said. “I have nothing but confidence in all of our guys.”
Lembo’s group is one of three Southington teams vying for spring championships.
“It’s an exciting time of year. The kids are pumped,” Lembo said. “We came off championships in football and gymnastics. So far it’s been a good year. I hope we can cap it off.”