Pictured: Griffin Biro puts an exclamation point on his performance after striking out the side in the sixth inning in Thursday’s game against Waterford. (Paul Augeri Photo)
By Paul Augeri
SOUTH WINDSOR – If only these Middletown 19U American Legion ballplayers could kick back and enjoy what’s left of their summer vacations. But they can’t do that. Not right now.
Because they keep winning games.
For the third consecutive night, Post 75 came up with an elimination-defying comeback in the state tournament. The 75ers rallied from deficits of 3-0 and 5-3 Thursday to oust No. 1 seed Waterford 6-5 at Rotary Field.
The win vaulted No. 4 Middletown (21-7) into the 32-team tournament’s Northern bracket final on Friday (6:30, again in South Windsor), where it will be the home team against No. 7 Avon with a berth in the championship game at stake.
Down 5-3 in the fifth with two out and no one on, the 75ers’ next four batters reached – Mike Garofalo on a single, Ryan Michaud on a walk, Colin Loria on a line single to score Garofalo, and Tiernan Powers with a single that dunked into right to plate Michaud from second and tie the game.
Loria, who had two hits and two RBIs, scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch by Waterford starter Robert Zawacki.
“If you look up after the first three innings, where it’s 3-0 and seems like they’re putting balls in the gap every other batter and we’re getting mowed down by (Zawacki) throwing in the high 80s, we could have rolled over and gotten buried there,” Middletown coach Dan Botti said. “It says a lot about these guys that they never quit. With everything going on with our roster (injured players, players who left and 17U promotions into key roles), guys keep stepping up.”
Reliever Griffin Biro, who came on for starter Brent Gilson in the fourth, took it from there, retiring nine of the final 10 Waterford hitters – seven on strikeouts — for perhaps the biggest W of his young life.
“I was hyped up after that final out,” said the right-hander, who’s taken advantage of a regular spot in the rotation that opened up several weeks ago. “When we were down a couple of runs I just wanted to do my job and get outs. When we started hitting I just thought, ‘Hit the spots and do what I do.’”
Waterford entered the tournament with a state-best record of 20-2 and came out swinging against Gilson, scoring two in the first on an RBI single by Elijah Morton and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Trey Brennan. Post 161 added a run in the second when Dan Driscoll, the winning pitcher in the team’s 4-0 victory over Tri-County on Wednesday, hit a leadoff double, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on Ben Jerome’s fielder’s-choice grounder.
Middletown rallied the first time with a three-run fourth inning. Michaud drilled a one-out triple to the gap in right-center and scored on Loria’s double just inside the line in shallow left. Zawacki, who sailed through the first three innings, began to break down. He threw a wild pitch, putting Loria and third, and balked him in for the 75ers’ second run.
After getting Powers on a grounder for the second out, he threw a strike-three wild pitch that allowed Jack Konopka to reach. Konopka stole second and scored from there when Tyler Powell stroked a single to center on an 0-2 pitch to tie the game.
Waterford took the lead back in the bottom of the fourth, with Driscoll’s one-out RBI single knocking Gilson from the game. Biro entered with Driscoll on second and got a groundout before Bebo Martinez singled to center to push Driscoll across for the 5-3 lead. Biro gave up Jerome’s second hit of the game before striking out Morton to get through the jam.
And even though Gilson did not have his best stuff, he still gave the 75ers a fighting chance.
“Brent did a good job tonight,” Botti said. “That’s the No. 1 team in the state. He was getting knocked around a little bit, but he minimized, he didn’t let it get away form him and he kept us in the game. He didn’t think so, but if he doesn’t do that, we’re not winning this game.”
Middletown won its first two tournament games – 2-1 over Naugatuck in eight innings and 2-0 over Norwich – with superior pitching and a hit here and there in just the right moments to get by.
On Thursday, the 75ers’ six-run, seven-hit performance felt as if the floodgates opened. They scored five of their six runs with two out.
“I came in here knowing about (Zawacki) and I did not think we were going to get six,” said Michaud, who also walked twice and scored two runs. “We worked the counts and we got his pitch count up, and he got a little rattled when we got a few hits off of him. We got big hits with two outs.”
Loria was a catalyst in just his third game since the season opener. He tore muscles in his hip and hadn’t played in anything close to a full game in 52 days.
“I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to play baseball this summer after that first game. You just gotta have fun, and that was a fun win.”
Biro had to deal with the top of Waterford’s lineup in the seventh and had no trouble with it, getting two strikeouts and then a grounder to third for the last out.
“I don’t know if he was (ticked) off that I didn’t start him today or what, but he came out firing with a little more velo than I’ve seen him throw with before,” Botti said. “Griffin throws hard, he’s s a great pitcher, but he just had a little extra oomph tonight. The ball was zipping out of his hand. It was his game. We weren’t going to anybody else. So credit to him, he’s a big reason why we’re still here.”
**Middletown’s top four pitchers — Alex Mach, Powers, Biro and Gilson — are unavailable Friday. Botti said he and his coaching staff would take their time deciding who gets Friday’s start. Michaud, Ryan Quinn and Loria will get consideration, he said.
**Botti spent the spring coaching the freshman baseball team at Avon High School. Avon defeated Bristol 1-0 to advance. “That team is (Avon High’s) varsity guys and they’re a great group of kids, so it’s going to be a little weird playing against them. It’s going to be a battle. I saw it first-hand.”
**Loria had four assists and shortstop to go with his great night at the plate. He continued to flash range in the field and said his hip feels much better than just a few weeks ago. “He had two RBIs, two hits, he legged out a double and he’s been steady at short,” Botti said. “I can’t say enough about him. It’s amazing.”
**Post 75’s U17 team was eliminated from that state tournament by Wallingford, 1-0 in eight innings. The 75ers’ ouster has a good side in that some of its players will replenish the 19U bench on Friday night.
Middletown…000 330 0–6 7 0
Waterford……210 200 0–5 8 1
Batteries: M–Brent Gilson, Griffin Biro (4) and Mike Garofalo; W–Robert Zawacki, Ryan Bakken (6) and Jackson Long. WP: Biro; LP: Zawacki. 2B: M–Loria; W–Ben Jerome, Dan Driscoll. 3B: M-Michaud. LOB: M–5; W–4.