MERIDEN — OK, so it lacks the cache of last week’s Northeast Regional qualifier.
Whoever wins this week’s American Legion baseball state tournament won’t go on to represent Connecticut beyond our borders. There is no far-off pot of gold.
Yet there are sliver linings.
This week’s tournament, which opens Tuesday night, will crown the official 2021 Connecticut Legion state champion.
This tournament will get said champion entree to the American Legion Hot Stove banquet, and that means dinner at the Aqua Turf Club.
This tournament will have a do-or-die edge every step of the way. It’s single-elimination.
Above all, it gets area players another week of summer baseball and a chance to strut their stuff before home crowds.
No need to fill the tank at $3 a gallon this week. Both Meriden and Wallingford are at home at Legion Field and Pat Wall Field, respectively, for Tuesday’s opening round and they’ll be right back there Wednesday if they win.
After that, action shifts to Ceppa Field. The old ballyard on Gale Avenue hosts the Southern Region semifinals and finals on Thursday and Friday, then the overall state championship on Sunday.
Meriden and Wallingford are both in the Southern Region.
“That would be nice to be hosting it and we’re in there,” speculated Meriden head coach Doug Wedge. “I would hope there would be some nice crowds there to see us play.”
Meriden and Wallingford open Tuesday night at 5:45. No. 4 Meriden (14-7 overall, 12-5 Zone 1) hosts No. 13 Ridgefield (10-15) of Zone 4. Win, and Post 45 will host either No. 5 Stamford or No. 12 Newington on Wednesday.
No. 3 Wallingford (17-7 overall, 16-5 Zone 2) welcomes No. 14 Glastonbury (7-14) of Zone 3. Win, and Post 187 will host either No. 6 Trumbull or No. 11 West Haven on Wednesday.
“I think we’re good to go,” Wallingford head coach Chris Bishop said of his Cardinals. “We’ve got a good team with deep pitching. Anytime you play good defense and get good pitching, you can make a deep run, and that’s what we hope to do.”
Wallingford will throw workhorse starter Parker Hunter on Tuesday against Glastonbury. Wes Deno gets the start for Meriden against Ridgefield.
Both area teams are coming off multi-game runs in last week’s regional qualifier, which ultimately sent NCL Windsor Locks/Windsor to the Northeast Regional in Shewsbury, Mass.
Meriden beat Fairfield and Greenwich before running into NCL Windsor Locks/Windsor in the winner’s bracket final. Wallingford rebounded from a first-round loss to RCP to beat Zone 2 rival Madison before getting eliminated by Greenwich.
The Cardinals welcome the chance to retake the field.
“Anytime you have a chance to compete for a quote-unquote state title, your guys are ready to go,” Bishop said. “Obviously, we’d rather be in Massachusetts, but we’ll take any opportunity we have.”
Meriden came within shouting distance of Shrewsbury. Post 45 made it to the final four at Muzzy Field before falling in a rematch with Fairfield, 4-0, in the semifinals.
“The quality of baseball was very, very good,” Wedge of the regional qualifier. “From that standpoint, it was a benefit to our team to face some real good competition.”
One drawback: The regional qualifier cut into Meriden’s regular-season schedule and cost the club a chance to catch Bristol in Zone 1. Bristol finished 15-5. Meriden, at 12-5 in zone play, was 1½ games back, but even in the loss column.
Post 45 did get in one last Zone 1 game. That was Sunday. Riding John Vumback’s three-hitter, Meriden routed Naugatuck 8-1.
The locals capitalized on a slew of walks and Naugatuck errors, plus key hits from Andrew McCarty and Dylan Gay. Right fielder Max Giacco led the defense.
“They seemed to want to hit to him all game and he covered a lot of grass,” Wedge said of Giacco, who is also a key piece of the pitching staff.
While Wedge’s boys scored eight runs Sunday, they mustered only six hits. That, combined with the shutout loss to Fairfield, makes the challenge of the coming week clear.
“If we want to be successful in the state tournament, we’ve got to start hitting again,” said Wedge.
And, with the single-elimination format, everyone’s going to have to be on their toes. There will be no reprieve for a bad day.
“I think that’s the way playoffs are supposed to be,” Bishop said. “If you’ve got a tournament bracket like this, it puts the pressure on, and you want to see how your guys respond to the pressure and how the other team responds to the pressure.”