WALLINGFORD — The effects of the college baseball’s lost spring are rippling through the Connecticut Collegiate Baseball League this summer.
Play has been rusty and elevated all at the same time, and there are a whole lot of new faces.
With the COVID-19 pandemic prompting most summer leagues in the Northeast to shutter this season, the CCBL, along with the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, is one of the few games around for college players.
That’s led to a major jump in terms of both numbers and talent.
The CCBL, traditionally a six-team league since its inception in 2009, features 10 squads this summer. Rosters have expanded to 28 players.
A fair number of those players are from the Division I level, a new look for a league predominantly made up of Division II and III athletes.
“I was talking to a couple of players who were in the league last year and they said the level of competition is exponentially more this year because you’re getting guys from all over who might play in those other leagues that aren’t running,” said Marc Verderame, the veteran Southington Post 72 American Legion coach in his first season managing the Southington Shock, one of the CCBL’s charter teams.
Verderame spoke Monday night after his team beat the Wallingford Silver Storm 7-0 at Pat Wall Field. The Silver Storm were brought into the CCBL in 2017 by former Sheehan coach Matt Altieri, and he’s seen the difference in play this summer.
“With certain players, yes. If they’re those Division I guys who got scholarships to go play at UConn, Hartford, wherever, we’ve got that in the league now,” Altieri said. “Pitchers throw a little harder, guys have some better swings. Some of the guys, I think, need to realize if somebody’s throwing 85-86, which we didn’t see a lot of in previous years, then you’ve got to start gearing up for somebody throwing harder and with an extra pitch.”
The Silver Storm are about to benefit from the D-I influx. Paul Gozzo, who backstopped Sheehan’s 2015 state championship and is now catching at UConn, will rejoin his former high school coach in the CCBL starting with Wednesday night’s game at Pat Wall against the Hamden Miners.
Last summer, Gozzo played 14 games with the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League and 23 with the New Bedford Bay Sox in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
The Cape Cod League, founded in 1923, is considered the nation’s oldest and best summer college circuit. The New England Collegiate Baseball League, which has seen more than 150 alumni go on to play Major League Baseball since forming in 1993, is highly regarded, too.
Both canceled their 2020 seasons due to the pandemic. Smaller regional leagues such as the New York Collegiate Baseball League and Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League, followed suit.
The cancelations were prompted by more than baseball considerations in the face of COVID-19. The above mentioned leagues bring in players from beyond their geographic base. They rely on host families to provide housing.
The CCBL doesn’t have host families. It’s an all-Connecticut league for college players who live in Connecticut. Thus, once baseball was given the green light in the second phase of Gov. Ned Lamont’s reopening plan, the CCBL was good to go.
And yet, for all the higher numbers and D-I talent, in some ways the CCBL wasn’t ready to go. Players had lost their spring season, after all. While the calendar said late June, the baseball clock was stuck back in March.
“The hitters are behind. They didn’t do much in the spring. The pitchers, they could throw,” Verderame remarked. “The pitching is definitely ahead of the hitting right now — wood bats, too. You’re throwing in two variables there: the wood bats and not playing all spring.”
“Immediately you saw the pitchers ahead of the hitters, especially a pitcher who’s got a bit of (velocity),” Altieri echoed. “That happened early. It’s starting to wane a little bit. The hitters are starting to catch up.
“Reacting on defense, too. Sometimes the guys seemed like a half-step behind,” Altieri added. “So, yeah, I think it cost them. 40-50 games some of these guys play. That has put us behind.”
While the pitchers have been “ahead,” allowances have been made for them, too. Without the usual base of innings forged in spring, Altieri is paying even more strict attention to pitch counts.
He’s also noticed pitchers losing command more quickly. What may have unraveled over the course of 20-25 pitches in previous years is now transpiring in a fraction of the time.
“I’ve been watching guys just buzz through an inning or two, and then suddenly they’re like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I’ve been cognizant of it. It’s a different way to handle a pitching staff because usually you get them and all their innings are done and they’re looking for more innings.”
For Southington right-hander Ryan Henderson, who threw five of the seven shutout innings against the Silver Storm, Monday marked a return to form. Mixing a crisp fastball with a sharp curve, Henderson struck out six and walked none.
A 2019 Southington High grad who just finished his freshman year at Eastern Connecticut State University, pitching in the CCBL for the Shock is by and large Henderson’s first regular game action since last year’s run to the New England Regional with the Southington American Legion team.
“We only had five games this spring (at ECSU) and I didn’t get in anything,” Henderson said. “In the fall, I pitched against Wheaton when we had our scrimmage against them, and then intra-squads, but these are the first games I’ve been in.”
Prior to Monday, Henderson had made two appearances with the Shock, one in relief, the other a start, neither a win. Both he and his teammates, in opening the season 1-5, found themselves shaking off quite a bit of rust.
“First two outings were decent, but now I’m starting to get the swing of things and I’m starting to locate a little better,” Henderson said. “I walked a pretty good amount of guys the first few games and now I’ve figured it out, found the strike zone. The catcher’s great and the fielders have figured it out. They’re making plays for me, rolling double plays. I can’t ask for more.”
Henderson, working to batterymate Andrew Pulcini, scattered six hits on Monday night.
The Silver Storm did have some loud outs. In those instances, Henderson’s defense did not let him down.
Ethan McDonough in left and Brandon Kohl in center gloved a pair of line drives in the outfield. In the third inning, second baseman Jesus Garcia and shortstop Noah Budzik turned two to keep the shutout intact in the face of three Silver Storm hits.
The Shock, meanwhile, got to Wallingford starter and former Cheshire High ace Gary Costello early. Southington’s first five batters reached safely and three crossed the plate before an out was recorded.
A botched tag-up on a flyout prevented further Southington runs in that first inning. The damage, though, was done courtesy of a RBI single up the middle by Kyle Leifert and a two-run triple to deep right-center by Jake Babon.
Costello struggled with his command and the Shock chased him in the third. Matt Warren doubled to the warning track. Babon walked and stole second. Jimmy Edwards plated both with a single into left-center over a drawn-in infield.
Southington extended its 5-0 lead with single runs in the fifth and sixth. McDonough singled and scored on an error in the fifth. Kohl singled and scored on a base hit by Warren in the sixth.
Kohl and Warren both finished 2-for-2 and Budzik went 2-for-4 to fuel the Shock’s 11-hit attack. Southington also stole eight bases.
Nico Gaudio completed the shutout with two innings of one-hit relief.
Nate Furino and Mike Koslowski pitched well in relief for Wallingford. Furino came on to end a bases-loaded jam in the third to keep the Silver Storm within range. He wound up working the next three frames, allowing two runs on five hits and one walk while fanning four with a tricky off-speed curve.
Koslowski brought the heat in the seventh, striking out two of the four batters he faced.
Both teams turned two double plays — one apiece thanks to base running gaffes, the other on straight-up D. Garcia and Budzik turned their 4-6-3 in the third, while Silver Storm second baseman Ben Schena went home to catcher Andrew DeClement to turn a 4-2-3 with the bases loaded in the fourth.
Both teams came away at 2-5.