WASHINGTON DEPOT — Saturday’s first inning at Ted Alex Field framed the story of Washington’s 3-0 win over Ridgefield Post 78 in the first round of the American Legion state tournament.
“It was two good teams with a similar number of opportunities,” said Ridgefield coach Kevin Brody, whose team finished fifth (12-13) in Zone 4. “Sometimes games are decided in the seventh inning. Sometimes, they’re decided in the first. That’s baseball.”
“That first inning could easily have swung the other way,” said Mike Kersten, head coach for Washington’s Zone 5 champions (19-6).
At the outset, it looked like it would. Ridgefield leadoff batter Nick Cullinan (3-for-4) opened with a solid single up the middle. Ben Wattles walked and Luke Barrientos beat out a bunt, loading the bases with no outs.
Enter Washington’s Tim Cianciolo, a New Milford High School graduate headed for UMass-Boston on a pitching scholarship, now thoroughly warmed up on a torrid day in Washington Depot.
“I like pitching when it’s hot,” said Cianciolo, whose fastball touches 86 miles an hour, steaming on the heels of a curve and changeup. “My arm felt really good today.”
“(Cianciolo) and (closer Connor Gannon, another New Milford graduate) pitched in the SouthWest Conference,” said Coach Kersten. “They’re not going to be overwhelmed.”
With the bases loaded, no outs, Cianciolo (6 innings, 6 hits, 8 strikeouts, 3 walks) did the overwhelming. He struck out Ridgefield’s cleanup hitter for the first of three straight times, popped out the next batter and zipped his heater past the final Ridgefield batter for another K.
The bottom of the inning played out in reverse. Ridgefield starter John McLoughlin got two quick groundouts, then loaded the bases on a double to Joe Brunelli (run scored) and walks to Zach Prahach (run) and Connor Gannon.
Cole Donaghey grounded a two-run single up the middle.
“I tried to choke up on him,” said Donaghey, a rising senior at Shepaug Valley High School.
Nursing its 2-0 lead, Washington had another opportunity in the third inning when Brunelli drew a one-out walk and Prahach singled. A line drive to third wiped out the threat on a double play.
Ridgefield loaded the bases again in the fourth, on one-out singles by Kory Nossan Matthew Bucciero and Matthew Colucci (bunt). Cianciolo got out with a strikeout and fly to right field.
“We didn’t hit as well as we have been — credit to them, but our defense and pitching were there,” said Kersten.
By the top of the fifth, still trailing by two, Ridgefield pressed for a score, trying two separate steals after another hit by Cullinan and a walk to Barrientos. Catcher Donaghey gunned each of them down — Barrientos for the second time.
“There’s only one point on a baseball diamond,” said Donaghey. “I have to show these guys it’s 72 and sunny, with lots of energy to set the tone.”
The final burst of Washington offensive energy came in the bottom of the fifth. Austin Swanson singled, then made it all the way to third on an off-target pickoff attempt.
C.J. Brito singled him home for the final score.
Washington hosts Hamden (21-6) today at 1 p.m. in the tournament’s second round. Hamden, second-place finisher in Zone 2, beat Zone 4’s third-place finisher Saturday 3-1.