CROMWELL >> On to Round Two.
Zone 7 champion RCP dispatched error-prone West Hartford 9-1 Thursday to take the best-of-three series in two games and advance to the four-team, double-elimination, Northern Division American Legion state tournament at South Windsor beginning Saturday.
While RCP is playing in South Windsor, the four Southern Division finalists will be playing at Palmer Field in Middletown. The two division winners will meet for the state title next Friday and Saturday at Palmer.
RCP (23-3) collected 16 hits and took advantage of seven West Hartford errors to outclass the Zone 7 runners up — RCP swept six games from the Westies this season — and easily advance.
“I think we have the potential to get back to Shelby [North Carolina, the site of the American Legion World Series],” said catcher Kevin Radziewicz. “I think we have the pitching and the offense to do it.”
In order to repeat last season’s magic, RCP must win the Connecticut Championship — something it has never done — then win the Northeast Regional in Bristol Aug. 5-9.
So first things first.
First was taking care of business against West Hartford, which, after spotting Post 96 a 1-0 first inning lead, RCP did with a three-spot in the third.
“I was very worried about playing West Hartford, because you hear about how hard it is to beat a team you’ve already beaten multiple times,” said first-year coach T.J. Grande. “But when we took the lead with those three runs after they took a 1-0 lead we were OK.
“I also think that we know them so well, we know their weaknesses and they struggle against fastball pitchers. So we threw our two hardest throwers against them.”
West Hartford’s bad defense contributed mightily to the rally. Cole Ogorzalek (2-for-5) opened the inning by reaching on an error by shortstop Danny Roth. Cory Baldwin (3-for-6) followed by dropping a bloop single into short left field. Chris Bouchard (2-for-5) lined a single to left and the ball caromed off Alex White for another error.
Two runs scored on the play as Ogorzalek scored on the hit and Baldwin scored on White’s error. Kevin Larkin (3-for-6) singled home Bouchard with the third run of the inning.
“Unfortunately we made some errors and you can’t give good teams like RCP four or five outs in an inning,” said West Hartford coach Elliott Lane. “We just didn’t make plays. RCP is a tremendous team and they have a lot of good players.”
RCP (23-3) put the game away with a four-spot in the fifth. The rally was highlighted by RBI singles by Ogorzalek, Baldwin and Leo Thomas (2-for-5) — and two more West Hartford errors.
Baldwin picked up his second RBI with a single in the seventh.
After giving up the run in the first on a sacrifice fly by White, RCP starter Tucker Lord cruised through seven. He allowed only three singles, walked one and struck out six.
West Hartford had a chance to score in the sixth as Neal Kelly and Carl Francalangia opened with singles. But with runners on first and third, Lord struck out White, then got a doubleplay when center fielder Dave Sevigny threw out Kelly as he tried to score on Clay Felice’s short fly ball.
“When Tucker is focused, like he was today, I know he will pitch a great game,” said Grande. “He’s pitched against them three times and even though they’ve seen him, he was great again today.”
Ogorzalek tuned up for his tournament start Saturday by throwing two shutout innings, allowing just one hit.
The game Saturday will be the first meaningful game RCP has played against an opponent from outside of Zone 7.
“It will be good for this team to go out and play different teams,” said Grande. “This is a team that looks forward to that and rises to the challenge. I do feel as if they’ve flipped a switch now that we’re in the postseason.
“We won four games against West Hartford, but they were all close games. These two postseason games were not close. I feel we’re playing well at the right time. And there’s no one I want to pitch game one more than Cole.”
Lane says he will be rooting for RCP.
“When you play them, the bar is raised,” said Lane. “That’s one of the best teams in the state. T.J.’s done a great job with them and we’ll be rooting for them. They’re Zone 7; it’s like National League versus American League. I hope they win it all.”