CROMWELL >> The ball was smacked by West Hartford’s Alex White to the deepest part of Monnes Field. The bases were loaded with two out and RCP’s three-run lead was about to disappear.
Except White’s cousin was playing center field. And if you’ve followed Portland High and RCP baseball these past few seasons, you’d know his cousin has a glove where triples go to die.
From Austin White’s spectacular catch while crashing into the outfield fence to Cory Baldwin’s monstrous homer off the scoreboard in right and Cole Ogorzalek’s two-pitch save, it was business as usual for the defending state champions Thursday afternoon at Cromwell High School.
RCP eliminated West Hartford, 5-2, to sweep the best-of-three series and advance to the American Legion State Tournament Super Regionals this weekend at South Windsor.
“We’re very excited,” White said. “We have a lot of momentum. Whatever team we play, we’ll put up a big fight and hopefully put up a good amount of runs.”
Afterwards, West Hartford coach Jim Hungerford was still shaking his head over White’s catch.
“That’s a major league play, a web gem, whatever you want to call it,” Hungerford said. “I literally felt chills on the back of my neck when he made that catch. That’s the game of baseball.”
Trailing 4-0 in the bottom of the fourth (West Hartford was the designated home team), Post 96 rallied against RCP starter Tucker Lord. Jeff LaRos drew a one-out walk and Andrew Hungerford dropped a single into short center.
After a strikeout, Luke Fox walked to load the bases. Max Main reached on an infield error to make it 4-1 and suddenly West Hartford had the tying runs on base for White, who blasted a Lord offering high and deep to left-center field.
But Austin White raced over and caught the ball while colliding hard into the fence. As White lay on the ground, RCP’s players and coaches, as well as Alex White, rushed to his aid.
“I knew I was going to hit the fence so I stayed straight just to make sure I didn’t hit my shoulder,” White said. “The best part about it was when I opened my eyes I saw my cousin. He asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘Yeah…thank you.’ I have a lot of respect for him and look up to him a lot.”
White remained in the game.
“He cut his forehead on the top of the fence but he was OK,” RCP coach T.J. Grande said. “We expect him to catch those types of balls. It was a huge situation. You kind of take it for granted what he does out there.”
RCP (22-4) took a 1-0 lead on Leo Thomas’ RBI double in the second inning. Baldwin made it 3-0 in the third with a towering two-run shot off the scoreboard.
“Honestly, I was just trying to hit it hard somewhere,” Baldwin said. “I got a good piece of it and lifted it. I knew it off the bat that it was gone. It felt good.”
Baldwin (2-for-4) also added an RBI double in the seventh that gave RCP a three-run cushion.
“We need Cory to come through in clutch situations if we’re going to be successful,” Grande added.
West Hartford starter Mike Verrengia allowed just four hits over 6.1 innings. The tall, right-hander from Hall retired 11 straight batters over the middle innings.
“I was real proud of my kids today,” Hungerford said. “They played fantastic. RCP’s a deserving champion. They’re the real deal and what we aspire to be. We’re young and we wanted to learn from this series and grow from it.”
West Hartford (18-10) had some chances late, leaving the bases loaded in the sixth after Main’s RBI double made it 5-2.
“We had opportunities,” Hungerford said. “Our guys showed me something today after what happened yesterday (a 9-1 loss) to come back and compete. RCP made the plays when they needed to.”
With two out in the seventh, RCP reliever Joe Vail walked consecutive batters and Grande decided to bring in Ogorzalek, who pitched six innings the day before in the 9-1 win, and Ogorzalek got a game-ending grounder.
“He told me when he got to the field that we was ready for an inning,” Grande said.
RCP will compete in a double-elimination format against Avon, New London, and Tolland with the winner advancing to the state championship series.
“If we come and hit the ball like we have the past couple of games I think we’ll be OK,” Grande said. “Whether we’re the underdogs or the favorites, our guys play the same way. They have something to prove still.”