Pictured: Haddam-Killingworth opened the season with a 4-2 Shoreline Conference road win against Cromwell.
By Marc Silvestrini
CROMWELL — Compared to his last visit, this trip to Cromwell High School was a little more pleasant for Haddam-Killingworth’s Alec Erskine.
Erskine, a senior shortstop and pitcher, had three hits, including a pair of doubles, two runs scored and two stolen bases to account for a big chunk of the Cougar offense in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Cromwell.
He also relieved starter Alden Halfinger in the sixth inning with no one out and promptly retired six of the eight batters he faced, with four strikeouts, to earn the save.
All told, Saturday’s results were a whole lot better than what took place a little more than two weeks ago and a couple of hundred yards further south when Erskine’s high school basketball career came to an end following H-K’s 54-46 loss to the Panthers in the Shoreline Conference Tournament semifinals.
The Cougars’ victory on the baseball field, in what was the season opener for both schools, also happened to be win No. 692 in the legendary career of H-K coach Mark Brookes.
As always, the coach took the win in stride.
“What I’m most happy with is the way our pitchers were able to hold them down after we took that early lead,” Brookes said. “Our offense started the game pretty well, but we didn’t take advantage of some opportunities that presented themselves after the first two innings and we left some runners on base after scoring those four early runs.
“A big reason for that, I thought, is that Cromwell made some nice adjustments to our hitters after the first time through.”
Erskine led off the game with a ringing double to right-center off Cromwell starter Zach Zajack, took third on Callen Powers’ bouncer to third and scored on Luke DiMauro’s double to the gap in right-center. Following a catcher’s interference call and a walk to load the bases, H-K’s Matt Miranda lined a two-out single to right to plate two more runs, giving the Cougars a 3-0 lead after a half inning of play.
After Halfinger set down the Panthers in the bottom of the first with the aid of a nifty 1-6-3 double play on a sacrifice bunt attempt, Erskine led off the second with a ground single to left, stole second, was sacrificed to third by Powers and scored his second run of the game on DiMauro’s sacrifice fly to center to stretch the H-K lead to 4-0.
“We’ve been taking a lot of extra batting practice after our regular practices — the coaches have been great about staying late and pitching to us,” Erskine said. “So I felt like I was ready to do some good things today. I felt pretty good up there.”
Halfinger, who breezed through the first three innings allowing just one hit and fanning five, got a bit unlucky in the bottom of the fourth. Justin Valentin led the inning with a soft bouncer to third that Powers fielded in time to make a play at first. However, he never got the throw off after being forced to hurdle over Halfinger, who was also attempting to field the ball.
Cromwell’s Anthony Gagliardi followed with a single to right, just beyond the dive of second baseman Ryan Kehlenbach, and — after H-K turned another double play that looked like it might get Halfinger out of trouble — Brian Radziewicz beat out a clutch, two-out infield hit to bring home Valentin, getting the Panthers on the board at 4-1.
The Panthers added their final run of the day in the sixth when Zajack led off the inning with a single and Halfinger hit Radziewicz with a pitch, forcing Brookes to come to the mound and summon Erskine from his shortstop position.
After recording an out, Erskine surrendered a blooper to right by Tysen Billings that scored Zajack, closing the gap to 4-2, before ending the threat by striking out the next two batters. He then struck out the first two batters in the Panthers’ seventh and shrugged off an infield error behind him before inducing a fly ball to end the game.
“It’s pretty easy to pitch when you have a defense that you really trustbehind you,” Erskine said.
Cromwell coach Christian Budzik tipped his hat to Erskine after the game, noting that the righty can throw three different pitches for strikes and possesses a change-up that makes his fastball seem much quicker.
Erskine surrendered one hit and fanned four in two innings of work. Halfinger gave up seven hits and two runs in five innings of work, striking out six and issuing no free passes.
Erskine’s three hits and two runs scored paced the Cougars’ attack while DiMauro had a double and two ribbies and Miranda had a single and two RBIs.
Gagliardi had a pair of hits while Radziewicz and Billings each had RBI singles for Cromwell, which outhit the Cougars 8 to 5.
Zajack pitched five innings of five-hit ball, striking out seven and walking three, while Brandon Berean was excellent out of the bullpen, pitching two innings of scoreless, hitless relief while striking out four of the seven batters he faced.
Budzik said he was pleased with the effort of his club, especially if you discount the first inning.
“I thought both of our pitchers did well, we just didn’t make enough plays behind them,” he said.
“All week long we told them that they’ve got to come to the game ready to play or else they’re going to get jumped on,” Budzik added. “So what happened? We weren’t all that sharp at the beginning and they jumped all over us.”
However, Budzik said he is confident that his team will bounce right back Monday when they host East Hampton at noon.
“We’ll build on this; we’re going to make plays; we’re going to get better,” he said. “We just can’t be getting down 3-0 right from the start.”
H-K hosts North Branford on Monday at 4 p.m.
H-K 310 000 0–7 5 2
Crom 000 101 0–2 8 0
Pitchers: H-K–Halfinger, Erskine (6); C–Zajack, Berean (6). WP: Halfinger; LP: Zajack; Sv-Erskine. 2B: H-K–Erskine (2), DiMauro; C–Gagliardi.
Records: H-K 1-0; Cromwell 0-1.