STAMFORD >> Almost.
It’s one of the most painful words in sport, but it best describes Middletown Post 75’s drive to get to the Elite Eight in the marathon that is the American Legion state baseball tournament.
After hammering Stamford in Game 2 of the best-of-three series 12-9 – it wasn’t that close – Middletown dropped the third and deciding game, 5-4, at Cubeta Stadium, leaving the tying run on third in the bottom of the ninth.
“The guys played hard all day,” said Middletown coach Tim D’Aquila. “I am very happy with the effort today, which was so much better than yesterday [a 3-2 loss in the series opener]. My team is always going to battle. We have tough kids and I knew we would battle all day.”
“We just made a couple of mistakes on defense in the second game. You have to catch the baseball and twice we didn’t and it hurt us.”
The big play came in the fourth inning with Stamford ace Kevin Stone nursing a 1-0 lead.
The home team got its first two runners on base and after a force-out at second, went on to load the bases on a walk to Grant Stone. Starter and tough-luck loser Griffin Bremer got the second out on a strikeout.
Randy Palonia then lined a rocket to left right at Jared Pflaumer. But Pflaumer took a step in on the ball, and couldn’t recover. The ball ticked off his glove and went to the wall for a bases clearing triple and a 4-0 Stamford lead.
Middletown got a run back in the fifth on a leadoff walk to Bill Waldner and a one-out double by Pflaumer. Will Woods followed with a single and he went to second on the high throw to the infield.
Right there Middletown had a chance to get back in the game, but Stone – who had 11 strikeouts in seven innings – fanned both Jordan Swilling and John Mormile to preserve the 4-1 lead.
The lead went to 5-1 when Stone slammed a home run off reliever Mormile in the fifth and that turned out to be the winning run.
“Not only is Stone a very good pitcher, he’s a very good player,” said D’Aquila. “He can do everything on the field. He can pitch, hit, hit with power and he has speed. He’s a very good player. We tried to get him out and get into their bullpen.”
Stamford coach Kevin Murray saved his ace for the final game and it paid off. But when he removed him after seven and Middletown finally did get into the Stamford bullpen, the 75ers – here’s that word – almost pulled the game out.
Stamford reliever Shawn Urbano pitched an uneventful eighth, but the ninth was very different. With one gone, Urbano lost the plate. He walked Nick Roy, then hit Malcolm Alleyne and Waldner to load the bases.
After Laurence Hill was called out on strikes, Pflaumer slammed a long drive over the center fielder’s head which went to the wall for a triple and three runs.
But Urbano came back to strike out Will Woods swinging to end it and propel Stamford into the next round which will be held at Cubeta Stadium.
“I thought Bremer and Mormile pitched very well,” said D’Aquila. “If we catch that ball in left, Bremer is out with just one run. We saw flashes of what he was last year.
Bremer, projected to be the team’s No. 1 starter, came out of his high school season at Haddam-Killingworth, where he pitched virtually every other game, with an elbow injury. This was just his second start of the Legion season.
“Mormile was unbelievable,” said D’Aquila. “He gave up that home run to Stone, then gave up nothing. Stone hit a pitch that was up, but once John got the ball down, he was unhittable.”
Mormile faced 14 batters after the home run, didn’t allow a hit, walked one and struck out seven in four innings.
Stamford took a 1-0 first inning lead on a leadoff double by Palonia and a single by R.J. Moravero. But he settled in and struck out six in his four innings, giving up just three more hits – one a bunt and the other the line drive to left that should have been caught.
In the opener, Middletown slammed 18 hits in taking a 12-3 lead to the ninth inning. Both coaches substituted liberally late and that came back to almost bite the Post 75ers in the hind quarters.
Stamford scored six times in the inning as Middletown made five errors. None of the runs were earned. Pflaumer, who pitched much better than it looked as he had to get 10 outs in two innings of relief, ended the nonsense by striking out the final hitter.
“I just think we had some kids in there who were nervous being in a playoff game,” said D’Aquila.
Middletown (23-11 in zone and tourney games and 30-16 overall) took a 2-0 lead to the fifth when it put a 5-spot on the board. Alleyne (3-for-5), Woods (3-for-4) and Jordan Swilling (2-for-4) each had RBI singles and Bremer (3-for-5) cracked a two-run single.
The 75ers added three more in the sixth as Mormile had a two-run double and Bremer had an RBI triple. Alleyne added a two-run single in the eighth.
Swilling hit a sacrifice fly in the first inning and Laurence Hill (3-for-6) had an RBI single in the second to account for the early 2-0 Middletown lead.
Mike McShane (9-0) went seven innings to get the win, scattering seven hits and allowed three runs, two of which were earned..
“McShane did a good job,” said D’Aquila. “He battled as he always does. He’s thrown 70 innings this summer, which is great considering he threw maybe 10 for Iona in the spring.”
Ronnie Jackson and Cam Greig each had three hits for Stamford.
Middletown will next play on Aug. 7 in the Northeast Regional against the Vermont state champion in the fourth game of the day at Palmer Field.
Zone 4 champion Stamford, Zone 2 champion Branford, Zone 3 champion Cheshire and upstart Berlin of Zone 3 make up the Southern division field at Stamford, a field most observers think is the stronger of the two fields.
The four teams in the Northern section at Muzzy Field in Bristol are Zone 7 champion RCP, Zone 1 champion Simsbury, Zone 8 champion Tolland and Zone 6 champion Waterford.
The next round opens Saturday at the two sites.
After all the playoff games involving 40 teams, only one non-zone champion (Berlin) survived to the final eight. Rob Manzo’s team beat Zone 5 champion Oakville in three games.