Pictured: James Marsden gets Valley Regional’s half of the fifth inning started with a single. The Warriors improved to 10-2 Thursday with a 5-2 win over Cromwell. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

By Marc Silvestrini
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

DEEP RIVER — When his team surrendered a pair of unearned runs in the top of the second inning to fall behind Cromwell 2-0, Valley Regional baseball coach Brian Drinkard knew his Warriors would need their “bats to wake up” and “a great performance from our pitcher.”

He got both.

Brayden Sparaco limited the Panthers to no runs and a single hit over the final five innings of Thursday’s Shoreline Conference game, while the Warriors’ offense came alive to score a single run in the third inning, three in the fourth and an insurance run in the fifth en route to a 5-2 win.

The victory improves Valley’s record to 10-2, both overall and in the conference. The loss, Cromwell’s fifth in a row, drops the Panthers to 7-8 on the season and 7-6 in conference play.

“We were a little sloppy on defense in that second inning, but Brayden pitched a great game and our offense kept grinding,” Drinkard said. “Eventually, we found some holes (with our bats) and scored enough runs to win the game.”

Brayden Sparaco (2) gets his Valley teammates’ postgame attention after pitching a four-hitter and beating Cromwell 5-2 at home. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

James Marsden and Sparaco were the chief grinders on offense for the Warriors as each had two hits, a run scored and an RBI. Sam Hutchinson and Reed Beighau chipped in with a hit and a ribbie apiece.

Colby Dimenna, Tysen Billings, Zach Zajac and Ethan Ucol accounted for Cromwell’s four hits.

Sparaco surrendered only two unearned runs in throwing a complete game four-hitter to pick up the win. He fanned eight and walking one.

“I trust my defense and I knew our hitters would get those runs back, so getting behind early never really bothered me” he said when asked if the two unearned runs Cromwell scored early in the game had unsettled him in any way.

“I felt like I was throwing the ball pretty well today and my slider was really on, so I kept on using it,” he added.

Cromwell broke a scoreless tie in the top of the second when Connor Slifer, the Panthers’ starting pitcher, reached on an infield error with one out. Nick Soignoli followed by drawing the only walk Sparaco would yield on the day.

After an infield out advanced the runners to second and third with two out, Ethan Ucol beat out an infield hit that scored Slifer from third while Soignoli, the runner at second – who was running on contact with two out – alertly rounded third and sped home before the Warriors could get the ball to Beighau, their catcher.

But that was about it for the Cromwell attack. Sparaco gave up a two-out double to Zajac in the third inning and allowed only two other Panther batters to reach base – and both of those reached on errors – over the final 4 1/3 innings.

“We’re just not hitting,” Panthers coach Christian Budzik said. “Valley’s a very good team, they got the key hits when they needed them — they were able to split the (outfield) gaps.

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us,” he added, alluding to the team’s current winless streak. “We’ve just got to find a way to string a few hits together.”

Valley cut into Cromwell’s two-run lead in their half of the third when Andrew Salbinski stroked a two-out base hit to right and Marsden brought him home by lofting an opposite-field double to left-center.

The Warriors took the lead for good by scoring three times in the fourth.

With one out, Sparaco ignited the rally by stroking a line-drive single to left. Beighau then lined a double to the gap in right-center, scoring Sparaco with the game-tying run.

Beighau reached third when Lucas Rogers’ sharp grounder was bobbled and then raced home when the ball was thrown past first baseman Sam Stergos to put the Warriors on top, 3-2.

A Jack Finnegan single then enabled Rogers to take third from where he scored on Hutchinson’s grounder to second to give Sparaco a 4-2 lead.

Marsden and Sparaco then combined to produce Valley’s fifth and final run in the fifth. Marsden led off the inning by beating out a grounder for an infield hit and then stole second. Two outs later, with Marsden having advanced to third, Sparaco hit a clutch two-out line-drive single to right.

“I wanted that fifth run because I knew it could be important against a team like Cromwell,” Sparaco said.

Slifer, a sophomore right-hander, pitched a strong game for the Panthers, allowing four earned runs on nine hits over six innings of work, fanning five and walking only one against what very well could be the league’s most potent lineup.

“I thought Connor did a great job for us,” Budzik said. “That’s a very good hitting team and a really good pitcher he was up against today.”

Valley will host East Hampton on Saturday (2 pm start) before its rematch with Haddam-Killingworth at home on Monday at 4. The Warriors beat the Cougars 13-3 in Higganum on Monday to take a one-game lead in the Shoreline standings.

Cromwell concludes its week with a home game against North Branford on Friday (4pm).

Cromwell…020 000 0–2 4 2
Valley………001 310 x–5 9 3

Batteries: Cromwell–Slifer and Zajac; Valley–Sparaco and Beighau. WP: Sparaco. LP: Slifer. 2B: C–Zajac; VR–Marsden, Beighau, Hutchinson. Records: Cromwell 7-8, 7-6; Valley Regional 10-2, 10-2.

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