GREATER HARTFORD TWILIGHT: Deeper pitching gives R-J Expos better postseason prospects

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GLASTONBURY — The mosquitos were terrible and the pitching wasn’t always pretty, but the sunset sure was beautiful and the Record-Journal Expos won the ball game.

Hey, you can’t complain about 2-for-4.

With an 8-5 victory over People’s Bank on Tuesday night at Glastonbury’s bucolic, but buggy Riverfront Park, the Expos wrapped up the regular season in the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League with a record of 10-8.

Jack Rich hit safely in four at-bats to lead the R-J’s eight-hit attack, southpaw starter Justin Marks battled through erratic command for six innings to earn the win and right-handed reliever Carson Coon closed it out in the seventh.

At 10-8, the Expos will be seeded either No. 3 or No. 4 for the league’s upcoming postseason tournament.

“It’s good to end on a win,” said player-manager Charlie Hesseltine, whose club quickly rebounded from an 11-6 loss suffered Monday night against Rainbow Graphics. “We hit well and our defense showed up today. The other team’s a good team. They put the ball in play; they hit quite a few hard balls today.

“I knew it was all about us hitting, putting runs up on the board for our pitching and our defense playing errorless ball.”

Hesseltine, for his part, tracked down four fly balls in right field, including a well-hit gap shot in the seventh inning.

On the other side of the outfield, Jeff Papciak cut down a runner at the plate to end the second inning and made a nice running grab in left-center to leave the bases loaded in the sixth after People’s had scored two runs to close to within 7-5.

The Expos never trailed in this one. They jumped ahead with four runs in the top of the first and pushed the advantage to 5-0 an inning later before People’s got off the mat with a 3-spot in the home half of the second.

In the fifth, launched by a deep triple to right-center from Rich, the Expos refortified the lead to 7-3. That enabled them to absorb the two-run rally by People’s in the sixth.

A head’s-up play by catcher A.J. Hendrickson — he picked off a runner with a snap throw to first base — kept People’s from doing deeper damage in that sixth inning.

Jon Walter further sealed the deal in the seventh by reaching on an error and scoring the R-J’s eighth run on a wild pitch.

Walter, the Expos’ center fielder, had a fine game. He sliced a two-run double down the right field line in the first inning and drove in a third run in the fifth with a sizzling grounder that ate up the People’s shortstop.

Rich, with his 4-for-4 night, pretty much nailed down the league batting title. He holds a .475 batting average, .515 on-base percentage and .712 slugging percentage. All are league highs.

So are his 28 hits, 9 doubles and 22 RBI.

While the Expos are done with the regular season, the league’s nine other teams still have several games to play between now and Friday. Those results will settle the seedings for the postseason tournament that starts this weekend.

At this juncture, the front-running Vernon Orioles are 13-3 and the second-place East Hartford Jets are 11-4. Rainbow Graphics, at 9-7, holds third place on percentage points ahead of the Expos, but still has two games to play.

The six teams behind the Expos all have nine losses or more, which means they can’t overtake the Meriden squad.

It’s a remarkably tight bunch. Only two games separate teams 3-8.

“A lot of competitive teams this year,” Hesseltine noted. “It wasn’t really one team. Vernon’s up there like they usually are, but they’ve won close games. It’s not like all their games were blowouts.

“Every team made good pickups in the offseason; every team has a good chance to compete in every game. You can see it in the standings. You have to show up to play for every game because teams are so close in talent.”

Among the pickups for the Expos were Marks, Coon and the Papciak brothers, Jeff and Owen. A corner infielder, Owen Papciak batted .353 in the regular season.

Coon, the former Platt and Manhattan College pitcher, gives the R-J heat out of the bullpen.

Marks, a Woodland Regional grad from Beacon Falls, can both overpower and scuffle. He leads the league in both strikeouts (50) and walks (27) in 37 innings.

In the big picture, the addition of Coon and Marks have given the Expos badly needed pitching depth behind the staff mainstays, Hesseltine and Hendrickson.

Last year — and in even in 2019, when the Expos won the regular season title — a lack of arms hurt the team in the postseason, when the games come fast and furious and the days of rest are few.

“This year, it’s not just me and A.J. going back to back with starts,” said Hesseltine. “We’ve got Justin, who’s been a key pickup. He’s pitched great for us all year. He gets the job done game after game.

“We plan on using every pitcher we’ve got in the playoffs because we’re going to need every single one of them.”

Hesseltine, drafted by the Texas Rangers out of Maloney in 2003, is still going strong at age 36. The left-hander is 3-1 with a 1.40 ERA and he’s thrown a league-high three complete games.

In 25 innings, Hesseltine has struck out 35 and walked just six. He’s allowed 18 hits and eight runs, just five of them earned.

Hendrickson, a right-hander, is a hard-luck 0-4. When not pitching, he’s catching. Hendrickson is hitting, too: .348 with 15 RBI.

At the top of the order is speedy shortstop Sebby Grignano, who gets on base at a .431 clip and is the league leader in runs scored with 19.

Jason Sullivan and Will Kszywanos give the Expos further veteran presence in the infield. Kyle Hartenstein, the sweet-swinging second baseman out of Maloney and Mitchell College, is batting .276.

It all adds up to a potentially deep run for the Expos, who are looking for their first tournament title since 2014, when they were the Meriden Merchants. 

The 2021 tourney is double-elimination and will feature all 10 teams. It plays at Palmer Field in Middletown and McKenna Field in East Hartford from Aug. 7-16.

The Expos are likely to open Sunday at Palmer Field, either in the opening game at 6 p.m. or the nightcap at 8. A win will put them back at Palmer on Tuesday. A loss will relegate them to the loser’s bracket and a Tuesday date at McKenna.

“I feel good,” said Hesseltine, who will get the start on Sunday. “I’m confident moreso this year. Our hitting, when we’re on, we’re unstoppable with the hitting.”

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