MERIDEN — He’d played some doubleheaders before, but Jeremy Mercier didn’t remember ever playing a 13-inning game before Tuesday night at Ceppa Field.
He helped it get that far, and he helped make sure it didn’t go any further. Mercier pitched six and two-thirds innings of relief and hit a grand slam in Southington’s 5-0 win over Cheshire in the state American Legion Southern Super Regional final.
Did he watch his home run go over the fence, two pitches after Brayden Cooney’s bases-loaded walk finally broke a three-and-a-half-hour scoreless deadlock?
“A little bit, not gonna lie,” Mercier said moments before his teammates doused him in Gatorade. “You lose your breath for a second: ‘that actually just happened?’ As you’re running around, it becomes real.”
Mercier retired Cheshire in order, including his eighth and ninth strikeouts, in the bottom of the 13th to send Southington to the best-of-3 state championship series, which is scheduled to begin Friday night at Ceppa Field.
“Jeremy Mercier, time and time again in the big spot, the kid’s got no pulse. No pressure for him. It was unbelievable to get that first run, break the tie after 13 innings, and then Mercier delivered the dagger,” Southington coach Marc Verderame said.
“He got to 104 pitches himself, I think. The kids were just exhausted. They needed somebody to make a play, and Jeremy Mercier did.”
Southington will face either RCP or Ellington. Ellington forced a deciding game, set for Wednesday night, in the North with a 5-1 win Tuesday night.
Cheshire walked 12 times, one of them intentionally, and left 13 men on base.
“I wish we had a couple of more hits,” said Cheshire coach John Escoto, proud of a 30-win season and complimentary to Southington, who was regular-season runner-up to Cheshire in Zone 3.
“Their catcher (Josh Panarella) controls the game. A big part of our game is running. He took that away from us today. Kudos to them. They’re an excellent baseball team. They don’t make mistakes. We don’t make mistakes, either.”
Southington’s Tyler Cyr led off the 13th with a single up the middle back through pitcher Ian Battipaglia, and Dan Topper walked. A sacrifice moved them along after Cheshire brought in Ben Schena to pitch, but a popup put Cheshire in position to get out of it.
And after Brandon Kohl’s walk loaded the bases and Schena fell behind Cooney 3-1, Cheshire thought it had escaped: Schena fired a pickoff throw to third, but Cyr was ruled back in safely.
“We saw that we could pick him off. That’s why we called the play,” Escoto said. “I thought we did, but the umpire called it differently.”
Cooney walked on the next pitch.
“Then the kid hits the grand slam, and the game is over,” Escoto said. “We go home.”
Southington started Jason Krar for one 25-pitch inning, then brought in Ryan Sheehan, hoping to keep Sheehan under 80 pitches so he could pitch in the final series with three days’ rest.
“He was at exactly 80, and I went up to him and said ‘if you throw another pitch, you can’t throw in the state championship, or we can win this game.’ He said ‘I want the ball,'” Verderame said.
Sheehan got to the daily 105-pitch limit in the bottom of the seventh with a man on first and one out. Mercier walked Schena, the first batter to face him, but got out of it with two strikeouts. Cheshire didn’t put a man in scoring position again.
“After that first rough inning, I started to get the groove,” Mercier said. “Throw first-pitch strikes, get ahead and keep runners out of scoring position.”
Southington turned two double plays up the middle and got another on a fly ball to left in the bottom of the 10th, ending the inning doubling a man off first.
Ben Shadeck started for Cheshire and pitched into the seventh before coming out, nearing the 105-pitch limit. Battipaglia took over and pitched into the 13th.
Cheshire tried a two-strike suicide squeeze in the fifth; it was popped up foul and out of play. Cheshire still loaded the bases with two out, but Sheehan got a strikeout to end the threat.
Southington’s best early chance came in the second inning, when a walk, a one-out single and a double steal put two runners in scoring position. A strikeout and a fly ball got Cheshire out of it.
Southington had a pair of two-out doubles to the gap in left-center, Cyr’s deep drive in the top of the fifth and a line drive by Jake Romano in the 10th. Both came to naught.
Maybe it was fitting that the scoreboard was on the fritz, sometimes showing double-digit strikes and awarding Cheshire 70 or 80 runs. It was turned off by the middle innings, or at least, the middle innings of a regularly scheduled seven-inning game.
“I don’t know if I’m 98 percent excited and two percent nervous, or 98 percent excited and two percent excited, you know what I mean?” Verderame said. “It was a great game.”
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SOUTHINGTON 5, CHESHIRE 0 (13 inn.)
SOUTHINGTON 000 000 000 000 5—5 6 1
CHESHIRE 000 000 000 000 0—0 3 1
Batteries: S—Jason Krar, Ryan Sheehan (2), Jeremy Mercier (7, W) and Josh Panarella; C—Ben Shadeck, Ian Battipaglia (7, L), Ben Schena (13) and Cole Escoto. Home runs: S—Mercier.