Pictured: Winning pitcher Justin Almeida (26) jumps into the arms of a Middletown teammate after sealing a 5-4 victory over Plainville. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
MIDDLETOWN — Coach Dan Botti was quick to point out Wednesday that his Middletown High baseball team has lost every tight game it’s been in this month: 4-2 against Platt, 4-2 against Hall and a 3-2, extra-innings loss to rival Berlin on Monday.
“If you’ve looked at our schedule so far, we’ve only won big and lost close,” he said. “Every time we’ve been tested, we’ve come out on the losing end, even though those were really tough games against three really good teams.”
It’s no wonder a 5-4 afternoon win over Plainville at Palmer Field juiced the team’s sense of accomplishment. Middletown responded in the game’s biggest moments with timely hitting, good defense and a strong relief outing from senior Justin Almeida against a Blue Devils team (2-8) that scrapped hard for a third win but came up short.
Mason Neumann hit two triples and drove in three runs, AJ Quinn hit a game-tying single in the fourth and older brother Ryan Quinn scored the go-ahead run in the fifth. Third baseman Tyler Powell turned a key double play with two on in the fifth, while Almeida, who relieved starter Caleb Reed with two on and none out in the fifth, crafted three scoreless innings for the victory.
Middletown improved to 6-3, surpassing the 2021 team’s win total of five. Botti also noted that his club was a strike away from beating Hall and Berlin and could have been looking at an 8-1 start.
“We’ve been telling the guys as a coaching staff that this is a really talented team, and we can do something real here,” the first-year head coach said. “I don’t know if that’s really sunk in until recently. Berlin mercied us twice last year, so to play them super close, a team that has lost back to back state championship games — a team that even though is 3-6 plays an unbelievably tough schedule — that kind of woke them up a little bit. I think playing a big LL school like Hall close, opened their eyes a little bit. don’t think they’ve started to believe until recently what they’re capable of.
“But the guys are starting to see it and we’re trying to get that point across, and right now we’re playing well. It’s good to see.”
After a scoreless first inning, Plainville took the lead in the second, scoring on a throwing error and an RBI single by Jaden Castro for a 2-0 advantage.
Middletown wasted a leadoff triple by Neumann in its half of the second when Plainville starter Brennan Staubley, who mixed pitches well, struck out Drew Strickland, Xzarweoasz Clark and Luke Weisenberg. But the Blue Dragons made the most of a scoring chance in the third, and again the highlight was a triple by Neumann.
Powell singled to center with one out and stole second. After Eric Wilson struck out, Ryan Quinn was hit by a pitch and Reed reached on a routine grounder to short that was booted for an error. With the bases full, Neumann went with the first pitch he saw from Staubley and yanked it beyond first base, just inside the right-field line. The ball trickled into the corner as Powell, Quinn and Reed scored easily.
“We just hit the ball where they weren’t,” said Neumann. “I was able to pull the ball down the line. (Staubley) is a good pitcher. He threw a couple changeups, a couple curveballs. My second triple, it was a curveball inside.”
Plainville’s lineup proved stubborn all day as it took the lead again with two runs in the fourth. Egan walked with one out and Legassey reached on an infield single between third and short. Reed walked Matt Bonney to load the bases before Castro tomahawked a line drive to right-center to plate Egan and Legassey.
Middletown caught a break in its half of the fourth when Clark, who led off, reached first on a dropped third strike. He moved up on Weisenberg’s sacrifice and scored on AJ Quinn’s hard-hit liner through the right side to tie it at 4.
Plainville threatened in the fifth when Staubley and Owen Leander hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Botti turned to Almeida, who had a 2-2 count going against Hills when Hills bounced to Powell at third. He stepped on the bag and threw across the diamond for the double play, and Almeida got Egan on a grounder to second to escape the jam.
Almeida said it was difficult to come into a tight game with men on base. He credited catcher AJ Quinn for spotting pitches inside and outside to keep Plainville’s hitters guessing.
“He called for a lot of curveballs to keep (hitters) on the ground,” Almeida said, “and our infielders made the plays. It made the process easier. The double play by Powell put a spring in everyone’s step. As soon as we get out of that mess, everyone was a lot happier.”
The Blue Dragons again got their leadoff man aboard when Ryan Quinn singled to right to start the fifth. Quinn stole second and came around when first baseman Leander could not come up with a catchable throw on Reed’s bouncer to short. It was the fourth unearned run surrendered by Staubley.
Plainville left the tying run at third in the sixth when Almeida struck out Ouellette on a 2-2 fastball. Almeida retired the side in order in the seventh on a liner, a strikeout and a ground ball.
“I knew I had to get these hitters out or else, and I knew I had to pound the strike zone,” Almeida said. “I was throwing curveball after curveball. They weren’t hitting it, so why not keep throwing it?”
Almeida allowed just one baserunner and struck out three. In four-plus innings, Reed gave up four earned runs on six hits, walked two and struck out one.
Middletown hosts Avon at MHS on Friday. Weisenberg, the team’s ace, will get the start.
“Mason had a giant game and his second triple swung the momentum back to us a little bit,” Botti said. “Justin came in and closed the door. It’s a really good win for the team, for sure. We started out 4-1 and now we’re 6-3. We’re in a good spot.”
Plainville…..020 200 0–4 6 3
Middletown.003 110 X-5 7 1
Batteries: Plainville–Brennan Staubley and Tate Stevens; Middletown–Caleb Reed, Justin Almeida (4) and AJ Quinn. WP: Almeida; LP: Staubley.