HARTFORD — Even in defeat, the Record-Journal Expos won Thursday night.
Already secure in the knowledge they had wrapped up the No. 1 seed in next week’s Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League playoffs, the Expos dropped their regular-season finale 1-0 to People’s Bank at Dunkin’ Donuts Park.
The loss prevented the Expos from winning the regular season outright and ended a six-game winning streak by the Meriden squad. The Expos finished the regular season 18-6.
People’s Bank, which scored the game’s only run in the bottom of the sixth inning, finished the season 14-9.
The Expos’ regular-season record is good enough to be, at the least, co-champions with the East Hartford Jets. The Jets (17-6) were on their way to tying the Expos for the regular-season title. At press time, they were leading the Hartford Colts 7-0 in the fourth inning of Thursday night’s nightcap of the Twilight Stadium Series 4 Sandy Hook Promise.
The Expos, however, will earn the playoff’s top seed via a sweep of the Jets during the regular season. Looking to win Meriden’s first GHTBL tournament title since the Meriden Merchants went all the way in 2014, the Expos begin their quest Tuesday night at Palmer Field.
This is the second regular-season championship for player/manager Charlie Hesseltine, who saw his club win the 2019 pennant.
“The 1 seed was more important to us,” said Hesseltine. “I would have been nice to win. Justin (Marks) pitched great. Our bats were (just) hit and miss.”
“But playing at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, everyone is trying to square one up and hit it a mile. It was a fun game,” added Hesseltine.
The Expos had one regular-season contest remaining — a game with People’s Bank on Tuesday at Ceppa Field was suspended by rain tied 2-2 in the top of the third — but they voted after Thursday’s game to forfeit the makeup. The decision was based on both teams’ desire to save their pitching for the playoffs.
“Our goal from the beginning of the year was to win the (postseason) championship,” said Hesseltine. “Regular-season standings never really matter because you have to beat everyone in the playoffs, but we played well all season.”
“We have four solid arms,” he added. “So as long as we hit, we have four pitchers for four games (in the playoffs).”
Marks, a tall lefty from Woodland High School, has shown why the Expos have the arms to win it all this season. He entered the game at Dunkin’ Donuts Park at a perfect 4-0 on the season with a 1.54 ERA, and he threw four more scoreless innings Thursday.
Marks hit the mid-to-high 80s in striking out seven.
“Our mindset is we got our loss out of the way (tonight) and we are ready for the playoffs” said Marks, who was making his seventh start of the season. “Tonight gives us confidence that we can beat anyone."
Hesseltine picked up where Marks left off and struck out the side in the fifth inning.
People’s Bank scored, however, in the sixth after Hesseltine pitch brushed the jersey of Willy Yahm, who stole second and scored on a single by Brandon Lynch.
The Expos had their chances to score and, even in their final at-bat in the seventh, put a runner at second base with two outs via a ground-rule double by A.J. Hendrickson.
But Jason Sullivan struck out to end the game.
The Expos managed just four hits against four People’s Bank pitchers. And when they did come up with a few early hits, aggressiveness on the base paths were costly. A pair of Expos were thrown out at the plate in the third inning.
Johnny Walter was out attempting to score from first base on Nhasean Murphy’s double into the left-field corner. Murphy was later called out at the plate on a close play trying to score after Sebby Grignano grounded out to shortstop.
The Expos also threatened in the second. Hendrickson singled sharply to left to start the inning. Sullivan then lined out to left field ahead of Shawn Remillard, who was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single into a double.
Hendrickson moved to third base on Remillard’s ball into the right-center gap, but Will Kszywanos grounded out to third base to end the inning.
People’s Bank had its own struggles at the plate, managing just three hits off Marks and Hesseltine. The Expos’ hurlers allowed just two runners to reach second base before People’s broke through in the sixth inning.
This is the second regular-season title for the Expos in four years. The Expos, however, lost in the 2019 playoffs as the top seed. The Vernon Orioles won it all that year, while the Jets have won the past two championships.
“This year is a different group of guys,” said Kszywanos, who played for the 2019 Expos. “We are younger, more resilient and have a lot more chemistry.
“We have been together for so long, since Legion days,” added the first baseman. “And some of the younger guys are really stepping up at the plate. But pitching is going to win it, and Justin has been lights out. If we can string five or six hits together, we’ll be fine.”
The Jets and Vernon Orioles had been chasing the Expos all season. The O’s lost Wednesday night to the Wallingford Cardinals and finished 17-7. With a win later Thursday night, the Jets (17-6) were poised to earned the No. 2 seed.