BRANFORD >> Your defending Connecticut and Northeast Regional Legion baseball champions are still alive.
Down 1-0 in the best-of-3 series against Orange, Branford came from behind to win the Southern Division Regional between the Zone 2 rivals with a doubleheader sweep, 4-0 and 3-2, Thursday afternoon at the James MacVeigh Alumni Athletic Complex.
Top-seeded Branford (31-2) will now play 14th-seeded Berlin (21-12) in the first round of the Super Regional at Noon Saturday at Cubeta Stadium in Stamford. Berlin advanced by bouncing Oakville in three games in the regional in Southbury.
“The degrees of separation between the teams are minimal,” said Branford coach Rich Balzano, while holding two fingers about 1/8th of an inch apart. “They are an outstanding program. I hate playing Orange, but it is what is.”
In fact, the series was so close that Orange had the tying run on third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third game. Sebastian DiMauro walked, stole second and went to third with two outs on a ground ball. But Branford reliever Mike Keinz, who pitched five innings of one-hit relief, got Orange cleanup hitter Matt Ronai to pop up to end the series.
“With two outs, I had confidence,” said Keinz. “I knew I would get it done and that he was more nervous than me.”
Said Balzano: “I was pretty worried since he (DiMauro) is a fast kid. I thought they might even try to steal home at one point.”
Post 127 took an early 2-0 lead with single runs in the fourth and fifth innings on a squeeze bunt by Zach Chamberlain and a sac fly by Jake Russo.
Branford chipped away in the bottom of the fifth when Tyler Criscuolo singled with two outs and Kyle Hart doubled to deep right-center field to cut the deficit to 2-1. A one-out double followed by a RBI single by Will Coleman and a RBI double by Chris Stankiewicz off Appel in the sixth gave Branford the lead for good.
“Coleman has been hitting all year and Stankiewicz is starting to hit,” Balzano said. “When 1 through 5 in our lineup aren’t hitting, it seems as if 6 through 9 hit.”
Orange coach Bob Mirto admitted he left Appel in the game a little too long.
“Appel threw a lot of pitches in the first five innings and his fastball was down substantially in the sixth inning,” Mirto said. “But we were up 2-0 and had opportunities to be up 5-0.”
What really hurt Orange in the series was the inability of its 1-2-3 hitters in its lineup to get on base. Branford pitching held DiMauro, Jake Russo and Chris Winkel to 3-for-36 at the plate in the series.
“We got good pitching, but we left a lot of people on base,” Mirto said. “We should have scored more runs.”
Orange finished 26-9 on the season.
“We have a lot of young talent coming back next year,” Mirto said. “Hopefully, we’ll build something special.”
In the first game Thursday, Dylan Millhouse allowed just six hits in eight innings and Sean Halligan came on in the ninth inning to retire three hitters as Branford took the 4-0 victory.
“I felt like we would win Game 1 today, but I didn’t know what would happen in Game 2,” said Balzano.
Branford scored three runs off Orange ace Nick Fusco in the fourth inning a run-scoring single by Hart, a bases-loaded walk to Forgione and a ground out by Coleman.
Branford added an insurance run in the eighth when Forgione scored on an error.
Meanwhile, Orange was able to get just one two runners past second base, with those coming in the fifth and seventh inning with two outs, but Millhouse got out of both jams with a strikeout and a double play, respectively.