BRANFORD – Over the first nine games of the season, Branford was playing like a team under pressure and very tight. After a loss to East Haven, Branford coach Steve Malafronte told his Hornets to play loose and to just have fun.
What a difference it’s made.
Branford (18-6) is the hottest team in the state, having won 14 out of its last 15 games, including a 15-5 victory Wednesday afternoon over Stratford in the second round of the CIAC Class L baseball tournament at George T. Dummar Field.
After a slew of upsets in the first two days of the tournament, the fifth seeded Hornets are now the highest seed remaining in the Class L bracket. They’ll host 20th-seeded Watertown Saturday in the quarterfinals. Watertown ousted fourth-seeded Wethersfield, 2-1, in nine innings Wednesday.
“Those nine games before we beat Guilford, we played like a club that had the weight of the world on our shoulders,” Malafronte said. “Since then we’ve become loose, have fun and that’s what we do. We preach play hard, stay loose and have as much fun as possible.”
Branford jumped on Stratford starter Braydon Seaburg right away in the first inning as Nikko Liguori reached on an error, stole second and Zach Withington singled to left to make it 1-0. Withington scored later in the inning on a double play. Another Stratford error led to a Liguori run-scoring single in the second that gave the Hornets a 3-0 edge.
“It was nice to get the lead early,” Malafronte said. “It relaxes you and relieves the tension.”
Meanwhile, Branford righthander Alphonse Suppa held the Red Devils to just four hits over the first five innings as 21st-seeded Stratford only got one runner past second base. In the fifth, Ray McIlhoney was gunned down at the plate when he tried to score in the fifth on a double by Seaburg.
Branford seemingly broke things open in the bottom of the fifth as the Hornets pushed their lead to 7-0. Among the key hits were a two-run double by D.J. Caron and RBI singles by Robbie Barbash and Withington.
Stratford, however, finally got to Suppa in the sixth, loading the bases with two out. That ended the day for Suppa as Malafronte pulled him at that point, even though he had thrown just 83 pitches.
“We have a long run out there,” Malafronte said. “It’s wasn’t so much the pitch count, but wear and tear on their arms. Why do it? If I can conserve his arm, I’ll go to guys in the bullpen I can trust.”
Carson Mendoza came on, but was wild as both Logan Zezima and Zack Fedak drew bases loaded walks to force in a pair of runs that made it 7-2. Jeff Sharnick followed with a two-run single that quickly closed the gap to 7-4.
But that certainly wasn’t enough as Branford exploded for six hits and eight runs in the bottom of the sixth off Connor Anstis and Fedak to blow the game wide open.
“I thought we had a chance after we scored four runs, but once we went beyond our four and five pitchers, all my pitchers eligible to pitch were in the field,” Stratford coach Mickey Buckmir said. “It was pick one and hope to get through it.”
Caron drove in a pair of runs for the second inning in a row, Withington added another pair of RBI to head the inning.
“Our No. 1 and No. 2 starters have been out with injuries, so we were a little light on pitching,” Buckmir said. “We were down to our fourth and fifth pitchers with a little inexperience.”
Stratford ended its season at 12-10.
“We came into this game playing with house money,” Buckmir said. “I have a young club with only four seniors. If you told me we’d win 12 games, eight in our league, get into the states and win a game, I would have told you you were crazy.”