By John Goralski
Mike Rogalski didn’t slow as he scooped up the ball in right field and fired a perfect strike across the infield. The South Windsor runner tried to miss the tag, but a diving Zac Susi pushed him off the plate to end the fifth inning threat and protect the scoreless tie.
Southington rallied for six runs the following inning, and surged past South Windsor, 7-0, in the opening round of the American Legion Sectional Tournament.
Just a few weeks ago, the young team was struggling to keep their heads above water. Flash forward a few weeks and Southington looks like the team to beat in their annual postseason push.
In the opening round of the sectional tournament, Southington was firing on all cylinders.
“We’re getting hot at the right time, and that’s something that we have in common with a lot of champion teams,” Verderame said. “It’s all about getting hot at the right time. We went through adversity. It made us stronger, and now we’re ready to take it to the playoffs.”
Southington’s match-up against South Windsor in the opening round seemed like an impossible dream just a few weeks ago when the locals snapped a four-game losing streak just to split against Terryville in a Sunday doubleheader. At the time, Post 72 was just holding onto a .500 record, but the team rallied to win nine of their last 10 games.
Once listed at the bottom of the Zone I standings, Southington rallied to a third place finish in the zone. More importantly, Verderame’s team has been best against the top teams and that bodes well for their postseason hopes.
“I’m proud of them for the way that they fought back. It could have been a disaster, but to come back and win 9 out of 10 since my challenge shows what they’re made of,” said the coach. “I think it’s important to realize that, even though we finished third in the zone, we took two out of three against Simsbury and two out of three against Avon. We swept Bristol. That kind of shows that we can hang with anybody and beat anybody.”
In fact, Southington entered the final week with a chance to jump up to second place in the zone standings. On Wednesday, they swept past Winsted to capture both ends of a doubleader. On Friday, Southington surged past Simsbury, 6-0, to finish the regular season with an 18-6 record.
Going into the tournament opener against South Windsor, Verderame considered his team the ones to beat.
“It’s going to be good baseball from here on out, but I think we excel in those big games,” he said. “We have the experience after going as far as we did last year and the year before. We have a history now in this program, and I think that’s going to work in our favor. A lot of teams get tentative in the tournament, but we’re the opposite. We’ll play loose. We’re going to be aggressive, steal, and bunt. I like our chances.”
It didn’t start out easily for the locals in a pitcher’s duel that lasted through five innings. Joe Rivera carried that momentum into the sixth inning, dispatching South Windsor, 1-2-3, after the play at the plate the previous inning. Then, Southington’s bats exploded. The locals sent 10 batters to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning and rallied for six runs to put the game out of reach.
“In the first five innings, we were swinging at everything,” said Verderame. “We were off-balanced. We were out in front. I told the kids to let the ball travel and take good swings. If you noticed, most of our hits went the other way. That’s what we’ve been working on.”
Brett Shaw reached on an error to open the rally. Zac Susi walked. Josh Dobrats was hit by a pitch, and Joe Daigle drew a walk to score the first run. Mike Rogalski followed with a two-run double, and it was off to the races. The first seven batters reached base in the inning. The first six came around to score, and Shaw capped the inning with a sacrifice fly to score Rivera.
Rivera earned the win with seven scoreless innings on the mound. He struck out 10 batters, allowed only three hits, and handed the ball to Austin Bumbera for two innings of scoreless relief.
“Joe’s not playing with us during the week. He’s up at school fulfilling his obligations at UConn, so it was really great to have him here with us today,” Verderame said. “He’s getting stronger with every start for us. In his last two starts against Avon and Bristol, he’s been dominant. I don’t think he’s given up a run in a long time. I think he has something like 19 straight scoreless innings, and that says something.”
With the 7-0 victory, Southington advanced to face Terryville in the second round. It will give the hot Southington team a chance to avenge the loss that kicked off the latest winning streak. If they survive that test, they’ll advance to face top-ranked Waterford in a best-of-three road series for a return to the state tournament.
Verderame isn’t ready to look that far ahead.
“You can’t look at it like a 9-inning game or a six-game playoff,” he said. “You have to take it pitch by pitch and take every situation as it comes. A ground ball to second base is the same in the seventh game of the World Series as it is in the first inning of t-ball. You still have to make the play and throw it to first. That’s what I’m trying to stress to them. Make it simple, go out there and make the plays.”
So far, so good.
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