By John Goralski
Marc Verderame didn’t try to conceal his grin as reporters swarmed around his players at Fuessenich Field in Torrington. He laughed as one player tried to interrupt his teammate’s post game interview with a good natured joke.
He nodded his head with satisfaction as he listened to the interview unfold and the player was heaping praise on his teammates rather than championing his own efforts.
Verderame didn’t try to conceal his pride in his players as he joined in with their postgame celebrations. It’s no surprise that the Southington American Legion baseball team is just one win from securing a berth in state finals. It’s no surprise that Verderame’s team is in the driver’s seat as the only undefeated team in the double-elimination regional brackets.
Verderame credits the teamwork, cooperation, and camaraderie as Southington’s biggest assets during their third consecutive postseason rally.
“They’re like my little brothers,” he said with a wide smile. “I really like where we are right now.”
Post 72 didn’t repeat as Zone 1 champions. They just survived a first round scare to reach the double-elimination tournament, but Southington took advantage of the opportunity. They out-scored opponents, 14-6, in the two regional games and are just one victory from reaching the best-of-three finals for the first time since winning in 1993 and just the second time in program history.
More importantly, Southington avoided the loser’s bracket entirely to reach the regional final with a rested bullpen while their opponents battled it out with their backs against the wall.
“In a double elimination tournament with nine-inning games, they’re just not going to have a lot of pitchers left on Tuesday,” Verderame said after beating Montville on Sunday to secure their bid to the final game. “They played today, and they’re going to have to play tomorrow. There won’t be much pitching left on either team, but we’ll have two of our aces ready to go. I like our chances right now. I think we have a good shot at it.”
On the other hand, Verderame acknowledged that the win isn’t guaranteed. His team struggled at the end of the regular season and blew three late leads to lose the Zone title. They bounced back with a lopsided victory over Willimantic in the first round of the play-in brackets.
On Tuesday, July 23, Southington sped out to an early 5-0 lead against Zone 7 champion RCP in their second postseason contest before the Cromwell-based team rallied twice to come within one run.
Matt Santovasi beat out a grounder to shortstop to lead off the third inning, and Ted Shaw drove him home with a triple. Santovasi (2-for-3) scored again in the fifth inning to start a four run rally. Shaw (3-for-4), Matt DiNello (2-for-4), and Matt Sirois scored in the inning, and Southington cruised to a 5-0 lead through seven innings.
Joe Rivera scattered seven strikeouts and one hit over seven scoreless innings, but Verderame turned to his bullpen in the eighth inning and RCP rallied for four scores as Southington’s defense began to struggle. RCP scored two doubles and a walk. The locals pushed a runner to third base with three consecutive errors, and RCP trimmed the lead to 5-4 by stealing home with two outs.
“I was very worried. We gave away three games this year in the last inning when we were up over two runs, and that’s a big problem,” said Verderame. “I sort of felt it in the back of my mind. Here we go again, but if we make the plays nobody can take it from us. We made some errors today, and we just can’t do that.”
Once again, the team turned to Santovasi and Shaw. Once again, the pair delivered. Santovasi drew a leadoff walk, and Shaw followed with a perfect linedrive into the left field corner to circle the bases for an in-the-park homerun.
Still, RCP was just 90 feet from tying the score, trailing 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth inning before Southington scored the final out. Brett Susi struggled on the mound with four hits in two innings of relief, but only three of his six runs were earned.
Shaw’s two-run homerun was just enough to hold the lead.
“I’m exhausted right now. It was pretty exciting. It wasn’t the way we wanted to win it, but we’re moving on,” said Shaw. “It’s survive and advance…We were able to pull it out against this team, and they’re a No. 1 seed. I think it’s going to give us more confidence going forward.”
For the third year in a row, Southington clawed their way into the final eight. For the first time in three attempts, they finished the first weekend with a 2-0 record in the double-elimination round. On Saturday, July 27, Southington rallied for three runs in the first inning and cruised to a 4-1 win over New London.
Susi earned the start, and rebounded with a six-hit, one-run performance over seven innings before turning the ball over to Andrew Goralski for a two-inning save. Susi kept New London off balanced with his fastball and curve.
“We made the plays today. We had a great game from Brett Susi, and I’m so proud of him—especially after the other day,” said Verderame. “He’s struggling as of late, but he’s my guy. I gave him the ball, and I had all the faith in the world in him. He pitched great today.”
Southington scored four runs on nine hits. DiNello and Dave Palladino scored. Palladino drove in two runs with a double, and Southington advanced into the winner’s bracket with a 4-1 win. Brett Shaw scored twice for the Knights. He drew a one-out walk in the first inning to start a three-run rally and drove a ball over left center field in the fifth inning to end New London’s hopes.
“We have a tendency to score early and kind of lag around and sit tight,” said Verderame. “Brett Shaw came up with a big hit, and that kind of restored our life a little bit. We got that pick-off at second, and that was big. We kept the momentum going.”
Shaw said that he approached the plate, looking for a ball to hit on the first pitch “His fastball was really hittable. I knew I could hit it, but my second at bat disappointed me,” he said. “I went up there knowing that I was going to get a hit. I didn’t know that I would get a homerun, but I knew that I was getting a hit.”
The victory advanced the locals into the winner’s bracket with a second round contest against Zone 6 champion Montville. Once again, Southington sped out to an early lead but Montville rallied for four runs in their first three at bats and they capped the rally by stealing home to take a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the third inning. It was Southington’s first deficit in the postseason, but the locals responded with four straight hits to spark a four-run rally in the next inning to take the lead for good.
“I huddled them up and told them that we’ve been here so many times before, and I believe in them,” said Verderame. “I thought that those games against Avon and Bristol when we had some tough times served us well. We’ve been in this situation before. We’ve been there. I don’t think that Montville has been down much this year. We punched them in the mouth a little bit.”
Craig Frobel scattered seven strikeouts and five hits over seven innings to get the win, and Rivera struck out three in two innings of scoreless relief. Southington put the game out of reach in the top of the eighth inning when Montville walked DiNello to load the bases and Andrew Goralski looped a three-run double to right-center.
Southington cruised to a 10-5 win to push Montville into the loser’s brackets. Enfield edged Montville, 3-2, on Monday to earn the other regional berth. The series began on Tuesday with Southington (2-0) coming off a day of rest and Enfield (2-1) with no room for error.
“This is huge,” Frobel said after the win. “We don’t have to play tomorrow, so we have a day off. Then, we come back on Tuesday and we have Joe Rivera and we still have Goralski and Susi. I can throw an inning, and the other team is going to have nobody left. That’s what hurt us last year. We ran out of pitching.”
That’s no longer a problem.
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By John Goralski