Pictured: Zach Zajac, greeted by Cromwell teammate Brian Radziewicz (20), scores on a hit by Ian McMillan in the first inning Saturday.
By Paul Augeri
CROMWELL — Coach Christian Budzik is as demanding as any other baseball coach, but he’s not asking for much. He just wants out of his Cromwell baseball team what it did Saturday again and again and again.
And he thinks the Panthers can do that.
Cromwell played up to its potential in a 10-0 Shoreline Conference win over North Branford at Fran Monnes Field. The final tally over the six-inning game: 14 hits (five for extra bases), just one (meaningless) miscue in the field, five shutout frames from its No. 2 starter, senior Justin Valentin, and one more from sophomore Brandon Berean in relief.
Top of Shoreline Standings
Cromwell (4-3) has won three straight and four of its last five.
“We’re definitely capable of doing this every game,” Budzik said, referring to his offense in particular, “as long as we don’t strike out (only four K’s in 34 plate appearances Saturday).”
Bottom line? “We hit the ball well and didn’t strike out,” he said.
Junior Ian McMillan had his best game as a varsity regular with a single, double, triple, five RBIs and two runs scored from the fifth spot in the order. McMillan has been playing center field while senior Malcolm Mention recuperates from a broken foot.
“Ian was strictly a JV player as a freshman. He’s bigger and stronger now and has been phenomenal for us,” Budzik said. “He’s as good a hitter as we’ve got. He’s found a spot in the lineup. Let’s put it this way: He’s not going anywhere.”
Just as McMillan did, the four hitters at the top of Cromwell’s lineup pounded three North Branford pitchers, accounting for eight hits and nine runs. Leadoff batter Elias DeLeon was 2 for 4 with two runs, Valentin had a run and a hit, Tino Gagliardi was 2 for 4 and scored three times, and Zach Zajac was 3 for 4 with three RBIs and three runs.
The launching pad for Cromwell’s winning streak began was its 8-3 victory over previously unbeaten Coginchaug on Wednesday.
“The game against Cog, we came out swinging the bats because we knew we wanted to beat them,” said Gagliardi. “They are the team to beat this year. We wanted that game. Since then, we’ve kept swinging the bats well and we’re going to stick with it.”
Ryan Nuzzo had two hits for the Thunderbirds (4-2) and reached in each of his three plate appearances. Losing pitcher Michael Virginelli had the team’s only other hit off of Valentin, who walked three and struck out six.
Valentin was in the strike zone a lot, and although he allowed the leadoff batter to reach base in four of his five innings of work, he got out of jams either with strikeouts or his defense making routine plays.
“I don’t throw the hardest, so I gotta try and hit my spots,” said the right-hander, who also referenced the Panthers’ win over Coginchaug as a “great morale booster.”
“North Branford is a good team,” Valentin added. “I didn’t expect it to be a blowout like this.”
After Valentin retired the Thunderbirds in order in the first, Cromwell gave him four runs in the bottom half. The big hits came from Zajac (two-run double), McMillan (RBI single) and Jake Gagnon (RBI single).
“When you start the first inning with four runs, pitching is a lot easier after that,” Valentin said.
The Panthers padded their lead with a second-inning run. DeLeon led off with an infield single, was sacrificed to second by Valentin, advanced to third on a hard hit to left by Gagliardi and, with the infield drawn in, scored on Zajac’s one-hopper to short. A terrific diving play by John Onofrio toward the middle also robbed Zajac of a four-hit day.
The Panthers added two runs in the fourth off of Caleb Allen, who relieved Virginelli to start the third, courtesy of McMillan’s triple into the left-center gap.
“I have been hitting the ball more early in the count, just to get balls out in the field, rack up some RBIs and get some people over,” McMillan said. “And obviously I’m being selective, too.”
North Branford began the day riding the momentum from consecutive victories over East Hampton, Morgan and Old Saybrook in the previous five days. The T-Birds are young — five sophomores were in starting roles Saturday — so coach Billy Mitchell alluded to some growing pains.
“Our pitching was a little not up to par today, but Cromwell is a real good team, a good hitting team,” Mitchell said. “We’ve gotten off to a pretty good start at 4-2 and we’ve been playing really well, but you know what? We got beat today. It was just one of those games. They hit gaps , they played a really good game, Valentin was really good on the mound.”
North Branford’s only other loss (4-2) was against Haddam-Killingworth, which is tied with Coginchaug atop the Shoreline standings at 6-1.
“We’ve played some really good games this year,” Mitchell said. “We’re starting to hit a little bit more. Our defense is solid. We’re young but we’re going to be in games, and I think we’ll be better by the end of the year.”
NB 000 000–0 3 0
C 410 203–10 13 1
Batteries: NB–Michael Virginelli, Caleb Allen (3), Jeremy Bunnell (6) and Ryan Michonski. C–Justin Valentin, Brandon Berean (6) and Brian Radziewicz. WP: Valentin; LP: Virginelli. 2B: C–Zach Zajac, Ian McMillan, Jake Gagnon, Elias DeLeon. 3B: C–McMillan. LOB: C–7; NB–6.