SOUTHINGTON — With Jason Krar on the mound for the Southington American Legion baseball team to kick off the state tournament Saturday, nothing would be able to hinder his focus — not the trash-talking, not the heat nor the fact that this game could have been his last start ever.
Despite those elements and despite the fact that Krar didn’t have his typical repertoire at his disposal, he was able to hold Niantic off just enough as the defending state champs won their Pod C opener 4-3 at Southington High School.
“He didn't really have it today; his fastball didn’t have a lot of life on it,” Southington coach Marc Verderame said. “His curveball wasn’t dipping and, in humid days, sometimes it’s tough. But he battled. I looked at him in the second inning and he said, ‘I don't have much left.’
“You know, it could be his last start because he is going to the Army,” Verderame added. “He fought like a warrior today. He did what he could to keep us in the game and I’m proud of him for that.”
The big hit for Southington came in the bottom of the sixth inning by Ethan McDonough, who was put into the game as a pinch-hitter for Tyler Strong with Post 72 trailing 3-2. The table was set with runners on second and third with one out and all eyes were on McDonough.
Southington’s offense scuffled against Niantic’s Tristin Smith for most of the game, but after Niantic brought in Jon Bollaca for Smith, the pinch-hitter came through. McDonough shot a pitch into right field, scoring both runners to put Southington ahead to stay.
“I just wanted to come through for the boys,” McDonough said. “I just wanted to get the job done and I'm just happy I was able to do that.”
Verderame said he knew he would need someone from the bench to come up big.
“That’s a kid who struggled early in the year and he keeps fighting,” Verderame said of McDonough. “I told the guys on the bench to be ready for a spot. Strong was struggling a little bit, so I looked at Ethan and said, ‘You’re going to be up in a big spot.’ He came up huge for us.”
Southington led 2-0 after two innings before Niantic strung together four doubles to bring in three runs during the third inning. Krar was able to get it together and battle back from a 3-0 count to strike out Griff Powers to halt the damage.
Niantic tried to get under Krar’s skin by jawing at the starting pitcher. Krar let that drive him over the next 1 and 2/3 innings he pitched.
“It fuels me and I hate doing it back because it's just not professional,” Krar said. “When someone talks like that to me to try and get in my head, I don't let them.”
In the bottom of the third inning, the Southington offense was looking to answer Niantic. Post 72 had the bases loaded with one out for Jake Romano, but he grounded into the inning-ending double play.
However, the team kept pushing and Krar would go on to retire the next five batters in order.
With two outs in the fifth, Ryan Henderson came on in relief. Verderame said the reason Krar was taken out that early was to preserve him for later on in the playoffs. He will be available to pitch again Wednesday.
Verderame also noted that playing from behind for most of the game, combined with the high temperatures, made fighting back much more difficult.
“I think the heat factors in incredibly,” Verderame said. “You’re hot, you don't want to be [on the field] and the longer the inning goes, your fielders are out there and they’re hot … It factors in and you got to be mentally tough because when you are down, its mind over matter.”
As reigning state champ, Southington’s leadership and experience played a major factor in being able to pull out Saturday’s win.
“These are big pressure situations and we've been here before,” Verderame said. “We’ve been in these games and that factors in. We were down one run [and] it's tough. It's tough to score a run in this league and you can kind of get in your head that we have to score a run or we are going to lose. These kids came up big. I'm proud of them.”
Southington, the No. 2 seed in Pod C, will remain at home for Sunday’s second round. That’s because Berlin, the No. 4 seed, knocked off top-seeded RCP 5-4 on Saturday.
As Zone 1 rivals, Southington (18-7) and Berlin (14-11) met three times during the regular season. Southington took all three en route to the Zone 1 Southern Division title.
RCP (14-9) and Niantic (14-11), meanwhile, meet in an elimination game Sunday at Cromwell High School. The survivor faces the Southington-Berlin loser on Tuesday. The Southington-Berlin winner advances to Wednesday Pod C final, with a loss to give.
Verderame said that Nick Borkowski will get the start Sunday and that Jeremy Mercier will be available out of the bullpen.
Game time is set for 4:30 p.m. In the meantime, his advice to his team for Saturday night was to hydrate, relax and maybe even jump in the pool.