By Ron Buck
MIDDLETOWN — As he walked back to the Cheshire bus Saturday, Ben DeLaubell clutched the hardware that answered the question on everyone’s mind after Cheshire won its first state baseball championship in 25 years.
Is Cheshire the best baseball team in the state of Connecticut?
In the eyes of the CIAC: Yes.
Cheshire beat Ridgefield 1-0 in the Class LL title game at Palmer Field, scoring the only run of the game in the top of the seventh inning.
And DeLaubell was the biggest reason why the Rams can call themselves the best team in the state.
In his final high school game, the senior who is on his way to West Point twirled a three-hit shutout and drove in the lone run with a bases-loaded ground ball off Ridgefield pitcher Jake Artzt.
On the hill, DeLaubell struck out only two Ridgefield batters, pitching to contact and letting his teammates do the work defensively behind him.
“I don’t like to brag or anything, but we could be (the best team in the state),” DeLaubell said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in us, but that didn’t matter. We believed in ourselves, and that goes a long ways.”
In 2018, it took the Rams all the way to a state championship. Cheshire last won a state title in 1993. Saturday was the fourth state title in baseball for the Rams.
Cheshire head coach Bill Mrowka was an assistant coach on the school’s last baseball title team. He lost as a head coach in the Rams’ 2000 title game appearance, their most recent prior to Saturday.
This year, No. 4 seed Cheshire (21-5) won three straight one-run games to win it all.
The Rams outlasted top-seeded Fairfield Prep 5-4 over 10 innings in Wednesday’s semifinals after beating Staples 4-3 in the quarterfinals. Cheshire beat Glastonbury 2-0 in the second round and opened the Class LL tournament with a 6-1 win over New Canaan.
“I would think we are (the best team in the state); I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Mrowka said. “We had to beat Staples; Fairfield Prep, the No. 1; Ridgefield, the No. 3. New Canaan is a good team and Glastonbury wasn’t easy. So, if you’re going to win it, you might as well beat good teams to do so.
“I’m just so happy for these guys,” Mrowka added. “It’s such a great atmosphere.”
As expected, Saturday’s title game turned into a pitchers’ duel between Ridgefield sophomore Matt DeLuca, who had allowed just three earned runs all season, and DeLaubell, who came in at 8-1 with a 0.51 ERA.
DeLuca matched DeLaubell pitch for pitch into the seventh inning. But as DeLuca, who pitched 1 1/3 innings of relief in Ridgefield’s 2-1 semifinal win over Amity on Wednesday, crossed the 100-pitch mark Saturday, he struggled to find the plate.
“I give a lot of credit to their pitcher; he kept us off balance,” Mrowka said. “We were fortunate to get one more run than them.”
“(DeLaubell) was right around the plate all game, which is what he’s done all year,” Ridgefield head coach Paul Fabbri said. “We just couldn’t get any clean swings.
“They win because they have him.”
Ian Battipaglia singled to start the Cheshire’s winning rally. Two walks then loaded the bases and ended DeLuca’s day. The 106th pitch was DeLuca’s last as he departed for Artzt.
DeLuca allowed five hits, struck out six and walked four.
DeLaubell greeted Artzt with a hard ground ball off the pitcher’s glove. The ball rolled to Ridgefield second baseman Quinn McDonald, whose only play was to first base, allowing Battipaglia to score.
“Everyone was just telling me to get on any way I could,” Battipaglia said. “And when Ben got up, I knew we’d get at least one run in. I had full confidence in him.”
“It’s like a dream, but better. You dream about these moments all your life and when you experience it, nothing beats it,” DeLaubell said.
“Hats off to (DeLuca); he was doing a really good job all game. When he went out, we just wanted to jump on the new guy. He just left a pitch up, I put it in play and it tipped off his glove. One run scored and that was all we needed.”
Ridgefield (20-6) sent its 3-4-5 hitters to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning. But as he did all game, DeLaubell let his defense do its job behind him. DeLaubell allowed a single in the seventh, but Battipaglia snagged a flair behind third base to end the game.
“We knew we had good defense. It was just a matter of trying to push a run across. We felt pretty good that if we did that, we’d win the game,” Mrowka said.
In all, DeLaubell induced 10 groundball outs. He retired the side in order in the second, third and fourth innings, needing only six pitches in both the third and fourth.
“They were putting the ball in play. They were being competitors, but we fought harder,” said DeLaubell, who threw just 80 pitches. “I can’t say enough about my defense. They didn’t make one error all game.”
Ridgefield’s best chance to score came in the bottom of the sixth inning. Matt Restivo singled to lead off the inning, but Alex Price popped up a sacrifice fly to Battipaglia at third base. Pinch-runner John Briody was then thrown out stealing second by Cheshire’s Matt Costello ahead of another groundout.
Costello also had two of Cheshire’s five hits off DeLuca.
“I heard (DeLuca) was a very good pitcher, so I had to be aggressive. He was tough,” Costello said.
“But this team is just unbelievable,” the catcher added. “The bond between us is like nothing I’ve had on any team before. That bond showed here today.”
Cheshire also threatened in the sixth inning after Costello singled with two outs. A tough error on McDonald put Rams at first and second. DeLuca ended the inning with his sixth strikeout, getting Eli Battipaglia looking at a curve ball.
Ridgefield’s first hit of the game came in the fifth inning and also produced its first scoring chance against DeLaubell.
Nick Cullinan hit a DeLaubell 3-2 pitch up the middle. Cheshire second baseman Paul Villecco could only knock it down. Pinch-runner Cole Blackwell then stole second and third base. But DeLaubell got the next two batters, striking out Joe Pastore on a 3-2 fastball to keep the game scoreless.
“It’s just unbelievable, me and (DeLaubell) came into the season not knowing what to expect,” said Ben Schena, one of seven seniors. “We had questions at certain positions, but the younger guys stepped up and our pitching came together, and this is what it leads to.”
Prior to the Tigers’ first hit, Ridgefield’s hardest hit off DeLaubell through the first five innings was a deep drive by Nick Hanna to left-center field in the fifth. Cheshire’s Ryan Cyr tracked it down for the first out.
Cheshire put a runner in scoring position in the third inning. DeLaubell hit a hanging DeLuca curve ball to left field for a single. He moved to second on a wild pitch with two outs, but Ben Shadeck’s ground ball up the middle was cut off by Ridgefield shortstop Matt Stamatis for the final out of the inning.
Cheshire threatened first, putting runners on first and third with one out. But after Shadeck’s sharp single to right field, Costello and Matt Downing struck out swinging to end the inning.
DeLaubell only mistake through the first four innings was a walk to Ridgefield’s No. 3 hitter Pete Columbia. But DeLaubell needed just 13 pitches in a scoreless first frame and 12 more to get through a 1-2-3 second inning.