Pictured: Elias DeLeon (center) drove in four runs Thursday for Cromwell and has been red-hot now that coach Christian Budzik moved him to the 5-hole in the batting order.
By Marc Silvestrini
CROMWELL — With all the prominent juniors and sophomores on the field, Thursday’s Valley Regional-Cromwell game might have been mistaken for a preview of the 2022 Shoreline Conference tournament championship game instead of what it really was – a key game in what appears to be a four-team battle for the 2021 regular-season title.
Cromwell’s 6-4 win over a Valley team that had won 10 of its last 12 entering Thursday’s game leaves the Panthers with an 11-5 record on the season, a half-game behind the Warriors (11-4). Coginchaug leads the pack with a 13-2 mark while Haddam-Killingworth sits in a tie with Valley.
The big monkey wrench in any analysis of the Shoreline race is that the league is split into two divisions, large and small. Each team plays the other clubs in its own division twice, and – here’s the hitch – only one of those two games actually counts in the standings.
The final standings and the pairings for the Shoreline tournament will not be official until the league announces the pairings before the tournament starts on May 29.
Though its actual impact on the standings is tough to calculate, the game itself at Fran Monnes Field was a tight, tense and largely well-played matchup between two young but ascending teams.
Cromwell got a huge offensive performance from junior third baseman Elias DeLeon to back up the solid pitching of sophomore starter Ian Mihalopoulos and a strong relief effort by senior Tyler Szrejna to hold off the red-hot Warriors.
The Panthers also got a fielding gem from sophomore second baseman Ethan Ucol, who helped Szrejna escape a bases loaded, one-out jam in the top of the sixth by fielding a hard-hit grounder off the bat of Andrew Salbinski, tagging the runner heading to second and flipping the ball to first baseman Tino Gagliardi to just nip Salbinski.
“We had our chances, the ball just didn’t bounce our way today. That’s baseball,” Valley coach Brian Drinkard said. “We dropped a couple of balls and they made a couple of plays. Cromwell’s a good team. You’ve got to make plays against a team like that.”
Valley touched Mihalopoulos for a run in the top of the first on a double by Salbinski, an infield hit by Colin Carver that moved the runner to third, and a sacrifice fly by Kyle Metz.
The Panthers, however, answered right back with three runs in their half of the inning. Junior Ian McMillan led off with a hard single to center off Valley starter Ryan Ellison and promptly stole second. A Justin Valentin bunt moved McMillan to third from where he scored on Gagliardi’s long sacrifice fly to left.
With the bases cleared, junior Zach Zajac followed with a single to center, bringing DeLeon to the plate. Three pitches later, he hit a long fly that easily cleared the left-field fence about five feet to the right of the 315-foot sign, staking the Panthers to a 3-1 lead.
“It felt real good when I hit it; it (the pitch) was right in my comfort zone,” DeLeon, who had three hits and four RBIs on the day, said. “I wasn’t sure it was going to go out when I hit it, but as I was getting to first base I could see that I had gotten enough of it.”
Valley pushed across an unearned run off Mihalopoulos on sophomore Sam Hutchinson’s two-out single down the first-base line and then scored twice in the top of the fourth on sophomore Brayden Sparaco’s clutch two-out, two-run double to grab the lead at 4-3.
But Cromwell came right back in its half of the fourth to score three unearned runs off Ellison to take a 6-4 lead. Ucol led off the inning with a walk and stole second and third before scoring on a two-out infield error to tie the game at 4-4. A pair of walks then brought DeLeon to the plate. He hit a short fly ball that dropped between Valley’s left and center fielders and its shortstop to plate two more runs.
Ellison, who deserved a better fate, pitched five innings for the Warriors, allowing five hits and six runs, three of which were unearned. He was relieved by sophomore Henry Breckenfeld, who pitched an inning of scoreless, one-hit relief.
Mihalopoulos, the winning pitcher, allowed five hits and four runs, only three of which were earned, in 5 1/3 innings of work, fanning six batters. Szrejna, who induced the big double play ball in the sixth, pitched 1 2/3 innings of two-hit, scoreless relief, earning the save in the process.
Carver and Hutchinson led Valley’s seven-hit attack with two hits apiece while Sparaco, Salbinski and Mason Erwin collected the other hits. Sparaco also had a pair of ribbies.
DeLeon, who also had a double to go along with his two-run homer and game-winning, two-run single, paced the six-hit Panthers attack while Gagliardi chipped in with a hit and RBI. Zajac and McMillan also added hits.
DeLeon, who hit in the leadoff spot for the Panthers until coach Christian Budzik moved him to the five hole in the batting order two games ago, has now collected three hits in each of his games as Cromwell’s No. 5 hitter.
“We just wanted to give him a chance to settle down a bit and study the opposing pitcher a little bit better,” Budzik said.
Budzik, whose team began the season by dropping three of its first four games, said the Panthers are now doing exactly what he hoped they’d do as the season progressed.
“After the start we had, we just wanted to be playing our best baseball by late May, early June,” he said. “We were hoping to get hot at the right time. And now it looks like we’ve figured things out a little bit.”
Cromwell closes out its regular season next week with a trip to Moodus to play Hale-Ray on Monday and a home game against Portland on Wednesday.
Valley will host Coginchaug on Monday, travel to Old Saybrook and East Hampton, respectively, on Wednesday and Thursday, and closes out its regular season on Saturday with a home game against Portland.
VR 110 200 0–4 7 5
CR 300 300 x–6 6 2
Batteries: VR–Ellison, Breckenfeld (6) and Erwin; C–Mihalopoulos, Szrejna (6) and Radziewicz. WP: Mihalopoulos. LP: Ellison. Save: Szrejna. 2B: VR–Salbinski, Sparaco; C–DeLeon. HR: C–DeLeon. Records: Valley11-4; Cromwell 11-5.