Pictured: Haddam-Killingworth coaches Ryan Fraser (left) and Mark Brookes congratulate the Cougars as they come off the field following Thursday’s 9-5 win over Cromwell that pushed the Cougar’s record to 10-2.
By Marc Silvestrini
HIGGANUM — The Haddam-Killingworth High School baseball team can hit, pitch and field well enough to win plenty of games, but it’s the little things that the Cougars do so well that have made them a 10-2 team.
The Cougars are exceptional when it comes to making those little plays — bunts, moving runners along without the benefit of a hit, aggressive but smart base running — that often spell the difference between winning and losing.
Take the fifth inning of Thursday’s 9-5 win over Cromwell.
H-K entered the bottom of the frame nursing a 3-1 lead in a game that was still very much in doubt. Alex Sheehan led off against Cromwell starter Ian Mihalopoulos by reaching base on an infield error. To that point, Mihalopoulos had limited the Cougars to two earned runs on four hits.
One out later, Alden Halfinger hit a rocket over the head of center fielder Ian McMillan, putting runners at second and third. And then things got interesting.
H-K’s Matt Miranda followed Halfinger by hitting a sharp grounder to the left side that Cromwell shortstop Justin Valentin fielded cleanly with Sheehan having broken for home on contact. Valentin fired a bullet to catcher Zack Zajac, which appeared to have beaten Sheehan to the plate. But a great slide enabled Sheehan to slip just under Zajac’s tag to score the run, giving H-K a 4-1 lead.
Great base running and an even greater slide: two little things that led to a very big run, even though the Cromwell coaching staff was not particularly pleased with the umpire’s call.
With one out and runners at first and third, H-K coach Mark Brookes then called for a squeeze play. With Halfinger, the runner at third, breaking for home as Mihalopoulos came to the plate, H-K pitcher Alec Erskine squared away and pushed a perfect bunt toward the pitcher’s mound.
Mihalopoulos’ only play was to first base.
Again, aggressive base running and a perfect squeeze bunt. Two little things executed perfectly that put another run on the board.
To their credit, the Panthers (7-4 after a 1-3 start) bounced right back to put two runs of their own on the board in the top of the sixth to trim the H-K lead to 5-3, but the Cougars scored four more in the last of the sixth to all but ice the game.
The four-run sixth was again the result of some well-executed little things by the Cougars in combination with one big blast.
Ryan Duncanson led off the Cougar sixth against Cromwell reliever Tyler Szrejna with a walk. Cavin Burrell, a senior who was making his first start of the season due to some trouble with his throwing arm, squared around to sacrifice and pushed his bunt to the left side of the mound where neither the third baseman nor the pitcher could make a play, putting two runners aboard with no one out.
After H-K catcher Nick Glynn drew a walk to load the bases, Sheehan plated Duncanson with a sacrifice fly to center before Luke DiMauro blasted a two-run double to deep center to score two more runs, stretching the Cougars’ lead to 8-3. It was DiMauro’s second two-run double in as many games, having knocked in both runs in the Cougars 2-0 win over Old Saybrook on Monday.
Miranda’s sharp single then drove in DiMauro to make it 9-3.
Cromwell rallied again in the top of the seventh to score two more runs off Halfinger, who had relieved Erskine in the sixth, with the runs scoring on a fielder’s choice grounder by Tino Gagliardi and Zajac’s sacrifice fly.
Erskine pitched 5 1/3 innings of three-hit ball in winning his third straight decision of the year, allowing three earned runs and fanning seven while walking three and hitting a batter. Halfinger pitched the final inning and two-thirds to pick up the save.
“I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff early in the game, but things got better once I settled in,” Erskine said, noting that both his curve and his change-up improved as the game progressed. “Also, Cromwell is a pretty good hitting team. They make you work.”
Brookes added that Erskine is the type of pitcher who doesn’t necessarily need his best stuff to be effective on the mound.
“Even when he’s not at his best, he still has that great location,” Brookes said. “Even when his breaking ball is flattening out a little bit, he can still locate his fastball and put it exactly where he wants it.”
Mihalopoulos pitched a very creditable 4 1/3 innings for the Panthers, yielding five hits and five runs, only two of which were earned. He fanned four and walked four.
Zajac and Valentin each had a pair of hits to lead the Panthers attack while McMillan had a hit and a pair of RBIs. DiMauro and Burrell each had a pair of hits and two RBIs for the Cougars while Miranda and Erskine each had a hit and two ribbies.
“They’re very tough,” Brookes conceded of the Panthers. “They’re tough to pitch to; their hitters just don’t give up.”
As for his own team, Brookes singled out the play of Burrell, both on offense and for the “couple of really nice catches” he made from his defensive position in right field. He also said he liked what he saw from the Cougars’ bats.
“We hit the ball hard and we executed pretty well,” he said. “I’m pleased with the way we’re hitting the ball.”
Though not happy with the plate umpire’s call on Sheehan’s fifth-inning slide, Cromwell coach Christian Budzik said his team simply did not make enough plays to win the game.
“Our pitching and defense just wasn’t there today,” he said. “We’re playing better, we’re improving – but we’re still not where we want to be yet.”
Though he thought his team hit the ball reasonably well, Budzik added: “We still struck out too many times in too many key situations.”
Cromwell will travel to East Hampton on Friday for a 3:45 p.m. game and to Old Saybrook on Saturday for a 1 p.m. contest. The Cougars travel to North Branford on Friday for a 4 p.m. game.
C 100 002 2–5 8 2
HK 021 024 x–9 8 1
Pitchers: C–Mihalopoulos, Szrejna (5); H-K: Erskine, Halfinger (6). WP: Erskine; LP: Mihalopoulos; S: Halfinger. 2B: H-K: Burrell, Erskine, Halfinger, DiMauro.
Records: Cromwell 7-4; H-K 10-2.