AMERICAN LEGION: Deno, Meriden shackle Ridgefield; Newington up next

MERIDEN — Two runs in the first inning didn’t seem like enough, but they turned out to be just enough for Meriden’s Post 45.

Post 45 opened the American Legion state tournament Tuesday with a 3-1 victory over Ridgefield at Legion Field.

Meriden (15-8) will be right back on its home field Wednesday night to host Newington in the second round at 5:30 p.m. Newington, the No. 12 seed in the Southern Region, upset No. 5 Stamford 5-1 at Cubeta Stadium on Tuesday.

Meriden, the No. 4 seed, settled for two runs in the bottom of the first inning against No. 13 Ridgefield after loading the bases with no outs. The home team added what turned into an insurance run in the second and led throughout.

Ridgefield (10-16) scored its only run in the sixth inning. By then, Meriden starting pitcher Wes Deno and Post 45 had built a 3-0 lead. 

Deno went the distance, working out of trouble in the fourth and sixth innings. He allowed just six hits, struck out seven and kept Ridgefield off balance with a mixture of pitches.

“My changeup was working beautifully. It had a lot of dip on it, a lot. I threw very little curveballs,” Deno said. “And that double play was big.”

The double play Deno referenced came in the sixth inning when Ridgefield scored its only run. Post 78 scored just once after loading the bases with no outs on a bunt single, walk and bloop single over second base.

But after Ridgefield scored, Meriden center fielder Evan Avery hauled in a line drive and prevented a run from scoring on a sacrifice fly with a strong throw.

Deno then induced an inning-ending double play, as shortstop Javon Malone fielded a ground ball, stepped on second and threw on to first base.

“Pitching with the lead is the easiest; you have room to work with,” Deno said. “I just had to throw strikes. That’s all I did.”

“Wes is a great pitcher; we all love him,” Avery said. “We are a great defensive team when we are all together. We make errors here and there, but (today) we just had to make the plays behind him, and we did.”

Post 45 didn’t make any miscues Tuesday. With Ridgefield putting the ball in play, every Meriden player behind Deno made at least one put-out over the course of seven innings.

Meriden was coming off last week’s Northeast Regional qualifying tournament, which ended with losses to Fairfield and eventual champion NCL Windsor Locks/Windsor. Post 45 did get in one last Zone 1 game Sunday, beating Naugatuck 8-1 behind the pitching of Maloney graduate John Vumback.

But with Vumback gone for the week, Post 45 turned to Deno and the Platt graduate didn’t disappoint.

“In Wes we trust,” said assistant coach Mark Kszywanos. “I’m very proud of Wes today. He was a bulldog.

“They are battle-tested,” continued Kszywanos. “We played a lot of good teams (last week) and they are ready to play.”

In contrast to Deno, Ridgefield starting pitcher Luke Dantonio struggled with his control. The lefty walked four Post 45 hitters in the first inning after allowing a leadoff hit to Max Giacco.

A sacrifice fly by Andrew McCarty scored Meriden’s first run. A bases-loaded walk to Dylan Gay made it 2-0.

“Our defense played well, we had some timely hits and their pitcher gave us a couple freebies early, but our boys came to play,” Kszywanos said. 

“We always tell them, once they get a lead, we ask them, ‘What do we want to do?’ The answer is, ‘Win the game.’ Put a team away by adding on. You can’t wait around. You have to attack.”

Meriden, however, wasn’t able to build on its 3-0 lead. Dantonio settled down after allowing another run in the second inning to go four innings before being relieved by Luke Barrientos, who pitched two scoreless innings.

Meriden plated its third run on a pair of singles in the second inning. Ted Haniewski started the inning with a single to right field and scored with two outs on Avery’s ground ball to short, which he beat out for an infield single.

Javon Malone, who had also reached on an infield single, was thrown out at the plate trying to score on the same play.

Pitching with the lead, Deno kept Post 78’s bats quiet until the fourth, when Ridgefield opened the frame with a pair of hard singles to centerfield. Post 78 then put runners on second and third with two outs.

The consecutive hard-hit balls resulted in Kszywanos meeting with Deno at the mound.

“He gave me a few seconds to regroup,” Deno said of the conversation.

“I told him, ‘We got them right where we want them,’” Kszywanos related. “He said, ‘We do?’ I said, ‘Yes! You have a defense behind you that wants the ball; you’ve got guys making plays. Just let them hit.’”

Deno responded. After inducing a ground ball that nearly turned into a double play, he struck out back-to-back hitters to end that fourth inning. The consecutive punchouts would be the start of four straight strikeouts by Deno over the fourth and fifth innings.

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