SOUTHINGTON — Jeremy Mercier and Southington Post 72 are made for big moments.
After RCP erased a 2-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning of the American Legion state tournament’s Pod C final on Thursday night at Fontana Field, the table was set for Post 72 to crumble or thrive.
The reigning state champs chose the latter. A double by Mercier to right-center field brought in the game-winning run in a 3-2 victory that sends Post 72 on to the Northern Division Super Regionals.
“I didn't think it was quite gone when I hit it,” Mercier said of his game-winning double. “But I knew I hit it enough that it gave [Sean] Crean a chance to score. When I saw him when I got to second base and he was rounding third base and the ball was still in the outfield, I had a pretty good feeling he was scoring.”
No. 1 seed RCP, having lost earlier in Pod play, needed to beat No. 2 seed Southington twice Thursday. Southington closed the door on a potential second game despite the sudden momentum shift when RCP scored twice in the top of the seventh to erase a 2-0 deficit.
“It gets to you a little bit,” Mercier said. “But part of the mental part — they say baseball is a very mental game — is you just gotta keep sticking through. You're going to get up in a big spot and you’re going to have to come through. That’s what it’s all about.”
Post 72 starting pitcher Ryan Henderson cruised through six shutout innings, allowing only two hits. But with the way the Legion playoffs are set up, if Henderson threw more than 80 pitches Thursday he would not have been able to pitch again until Tuesday.
Post 72 coach Marc Verderame said that while pulling Henderson was difficult, he had to plan for later on in the playoffs.
So Verderame made the decision to put in Jason Krar, who has been one of the team’s best pitchers all season long. On Thursday, the first RCP batter he faced grounded out to first, but the next hitter got on base with an infield single and then a potential double play ball was booted.
The next batter walked to load the bases and RCP’s No. 8 batter delivered with a two-run base hit down the left field line.
From there, Krar got a groundout and strikeout to end the frame.
“It’s tough,” said Verderame. “You gotta win the game, but you still have to set your pitching up. We wanted to keep [Henderson] under 80 pitches to get to Monday for the next round. We rolled the dice with Krar and we should have been out of it. We had a couple of bad breaks out there and we picked it up. My guys picked me up and Jeremy Mercier cashed in.”
Verderame said losing the lead was difficult, but staying upbeat was pivotal.
“It's important. RCP had all the momentum and, when they tied it up, they still had first and second with one out,” Verderame said. “We had to get out of it. We battled back. Krar had a big strikeout, battled and gave us a chance. I got the guys in the dugout and said, ‘This is about want; let’s go win it.’”
Without Henderson’s masterful outing, it is hard to picture where this game could have gone. Henderson was so focused he didn’t even mind RCP’s attempts to throw off his timing with several timeouts during at-bats.
“That stuff doesn’t really bother me,” Henderson said. “Yeah, it looks like I like a fast pace, but having a break here and there in the heat isn’t bad.”
Henderson had just about every pitch working for him Thursday night. When he was locating his pitches, which was frequently, the ball was down in the zone and on the paint.
“Mostly everything was working today,” Henderson said. “I was throwing low most of the time and having them pop up and hit some ground balls. I was mostly looking for contact the whole time. I usually would go fastball first pitch, but I changed it up here and there — throw a curveball first pitch. Then, I would try to finish the hitter off with a fastball or slider. It all worked out.”
Prior to the game Henderson was named the Most Outstanding Pitcher of the Department Baseball Tournament for his excellence during last year’s state championship run. Verderame was named Baseball Coach of the Year. Both awards were given by Connecticut American Legion Baseball.
“It’s all about the players,” Verderame said. “They performed last year when we won the state championship and they make me look good. We set the lineup, we set the stage and they got to go out and perform. It is an honor to get the award with Henderson, who won so many big games last year and this year. I am proud of him and proud to represent the town as we do.”
Post 72 has serious momentum now heading into the Northern Division Super Regional, which plays at Rotary Field in South Windsor while Meriden’s Ceppa Field plays host to the Southern Division Super Regional.
Southington will be joined by Waterford and Zone 1 rivals Bristol and West Hartford in the North. Cheshire, Hamden, Stamford and Naugatuck have qualified in the South.
The opening games are Saturday at 1 and 4 p.m. at both sites, with action continuing daily through at least Tuesday. The winners advance to a best-of-three state final at Ceppa on Aug. 2-3.
Southington and Cheshire will learn their opening opponents Friday. No matter who it is for Southington, Verderame said Nick Borkowski will get the start on the mound for Post 72.
“We are feeling good right now,” Verderame said. “We knew all along this year that we were going to take some losses and have some ups and downs. It’s a long summer. We wanted to be wired for the playoffs.
“We are made for the playoffs with our pitching staff; they are veterans. We are really focused right now and I like where our team is at. We are looking forward to this weekend.”