BRISTOL — It all started with a bloop single, a seemingly innocuous pop-up that detected a small opening in no-man’s-land in shallow left field and dropped in for a hit.
It wasn’t particularly well-hit, but it certainly was well placed, and that harmless fly ball, off the bat of sophomore Cole Lalli to lead off the top of the seventh inning Wednesday night, sparked an explosion that propelled the Coventry High School baseball team into the Class S state championship game with a 4-1 win over Shepaug in the semifinals at Muzzy Field.
Trailing 1-0 through six innings and down to their final at-bats, the fifth-seeded Patriots needed something — anything — to stir up a rally and keep their season alive. That something was Lalli’s pop-up. Ryan Lawrence followed with a line-drive single to center, and a textbook sacrifice bunt by Jordan Jeroszko put runners on second and third with one out.
Justin Mancino then lined a two-run single to left that plated Lalli with the tying run and Lawrence with the go-ahead run.
But the Patriots weren’t done yet. Nikolaj Freschlin drew a two-out walk, and John Boutin grounded a two-run single to left field to give Patriots senior pitcher Trevor Moulton a three-run lead — finally, some breathing room — for the bottom of the seventh. Moulton then set the Spartans down 1-2-3 to seal the victory.
“Oh, man! It feels great!” Moulton said. “I’ve been waiting since my freshman year to make it. We’ve been working so hard this season, and it paid off.”
Coventry will face Notre Dame of Fairfield in the Class S state championship game at Palmer Field in Middletown on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Sixth-seeded Notre Dame defeated Holy Cross 7-5 in Wednesday’s earlier semifinal at Muzzy Field. It will be Coventry’s first trip to the state final since it won the Class S crown in 1984 with an 8-6 victory over Somers.
Moulton’s exuberance is certainly understandable considering the Patriots’ tournament run this year followed frustratingly early exits the two previous years. They were the third seed in Class S last year, but were upset by 19th-seeded Shepaug in the second round. In 2016, Coventry was the fifth seed and was upset by 28th-seeded Immaculate in the first round.
“I’m so excited to see what Saturday brings,” Moulton said. “Hopefully, it brings us a championship. It’s going to be a blast.”
Shepaug took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first when Nick Fleming drew a one-out walk and scored on Joe Brunelli’s single to left.
After that, starting pitchers Moulton and Shepaug’s Dominic Perachi battled back and forth posting scoreless frame after scoreless frame. Moulton went the distance, striking out seven, walking one and scattering six hits, all singles. He worked into and out of trouble several times, stranding two runners on base in the first, third and fifth innings.
“I think he was wearing down a little bit toward the end of the season, but he got a chance to get a little bit of rest,” Coventry coach Ryan Giberson said. “He settled in after the first inning, and I mean, he throws strikes. You try to throw strikes and make routine plays. We know he’s going to keep us in the game, and I thought we played great defense behind him. Then we got a lead for him and it gave him a lot of confidence. It’s not easy to pitch down 1-0 the entire game.”
Perachi was equal to the challenge and took a three-hit shutout into the seventh inning before running into trouble. He was relieved by Fleming with one out in the seventh, after Mancino’s go-ahead single. Fleming was relieved by Alan Stinson with two outs in the seventh. Perachi finished with eight strikeouts and one walk while allowing seven hits, all singles. He stranded eight Coventry runners in base.
“It was a great game, two really good teams going at it,” Shepaug coach Scott Werkhoven said. “What are you going to do? You tip your hat to them, they played a heck of a game. I thought our kids did a nice job, and Dominic pitched a great game. We got beat. It happens.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Lawrence had three singles as Coventry’s leadoff hitter, while Matthew Cook had two singles and Freschlin drew two walks.
“You put the ball in play and good things are going to happen,” said Giberson, whose Patriots reached the championship game of the North Central Connecticut Conference before falling to Suffield. “These kids compete. They’re prepared, and they’ve done it all season. We don’t always win, but we show up to play.”
Fleming had two singles and a walk for Shepaug, and Ethan Hibbard had two singles. Hibbard, the Spartans’ catcher, also made back-to-back sensational catches on foul pop-ups, one right in front of the backstop with his back to the field, and the other as he was running toward the Shepaug dugout down the first-base line.
It was a tough way to end what had been such a triumphant season for Shepaug, which won the Berkshire League title and lost only one other game all year. Prior to Wednesday, the Spartans had out-scored their first three opponents in the state tournament 35-2.
“This is just an outstanding group of kids that we got to coach this year,” Werkhoven said. “This is a really good group, a lot of fun to be with every day.”
Coincidentally, Coventry had also out-scored its first three state-tournament opponents 35-2.
But the Patriots have one more opponent remaining.
COVENTRY 4, SHEPAUG 1
COVENTRY000 000 4 — 4 8 0
SHEPAUG100 000 0 — 1 6 2
Records: Coventry 20-6; Shepaug 22-2. Batteries: C—Trevor Moulton (W) and Justin Mancino; S—Dominic Perachi (L), Nick Fleming (7), Alan Stinson (7) and Ethan Hibbard.