Pictured: Senior Conner Willett finished with a five-hitter in Coginchaug’s 5-2 win over Middletown. He allowed two walks and struck out 10. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
DURHAM – Coginchaug right-hander Conner Willet was soaked with sweat by the seventh inning and in a fix. Middletown had runners on the corners with one out and the tying run at the plate when coach Mark Basil and catcher Ethan Covello visited the mound.
Willett was his usual unflappable self. He had the ball in his right hand and stared into Basil’s eyes. Basil had no intention of taking the ball from him.
“We talked about just attacking the hitters. ‘No one walks. Just go after them,’” Willett said. “We know Middletown has a deep lineup and we didn’t want them to get the barrel to the ball. That’s a good squad over there.”
Covell cut in on the postgame conversation to say “Conner’s always ready to execute his pitches. We’re confident he can throw his breaking pitches regardless of the count.”
Facing Tyler Powell, perhaps Middletown’s most dangerous hitter, Willett worked the count to 1-2 before Powell hit a sharp ground ball to shortstop Jayson Penney, who started a 6-4-3 double play to secure the Blue Devils’ 5-2 victory over the Blue Dragons.
“I just wanted to give Conner a little bit of a breather with the heat,” Basil said. “It was going to be his last batter with the pitch count. Jeremy Mangiameli was going to close it for him. Conner had a bit of a hiccup in the third with their lineup, but he managed to adjust his approach and used his breaking pitch and splitter earlier in the counts.”
The game-ending out at first did not come without controversy — Adam Schaffer dropped the throw from second baseman Ryan Grant as the umpire called Powell out.
“I thought he was safe just straight up, and then the kid also dropped the ball,” Middletown coach Dan Botti said. “I thought he was safe two times.”
It wasn’t sour grapes on Botti’s part, because he acknowledged that Middletown (7-6), which lost its third straight, had chances earlier in the game to score runs. Middletown left three runners at third base on the day.
But Willett, a senior who will go on to play at Eastern Connecticut State, was sturdier than oak in the toughest spots. He prevented Middletown from taking the lead in the third after the Blue Dragons scored twice to tie the game and still had two runners on, and Willett also got out of the fourth and fifth innings with a runner at third base each time. The fourth-inning jam ended with a strikeout-throwout as Covell caught Diego Carrillo attempting to steal second.
Willett finished with a five-hitter. He allowed two walks and struck out 10.
“The best thing about Conner, nothing ever fazes him,” said Covello. “He’s always ready to go and he’s the same guy no matter what is going on. He’s a competitor and that’s what he does. So, from my end, no matter what was going on in the game, he was ready to execute as best as he can and that’s exactly what he did. I was happy with him.”
Coginchaug (9-6) has won two of three this week. The defending Class S champs finish their four-game slog on Friday with a non-conference home game against Windsor Locks.
The Blue Devils scored single runs in the first and second innings. Willett led off the game with a single, advanced to second and then third on groundouts and scored on a wild pitch. In the second, Covello reached on an error and eventually scored on a base hit by Preston Mennone.
After retiring the first eight Middletown batters, Willett walked AJ Quinn in the third and hit Powell in the back with a two-strike pitch to keep the inning going. Eric Wilson followed with a single to right to score Quinn, and Ryan Quinn’s sharp grounder off the heel of Schaffer’s glove skipped into the outfield to plate Powell. Willett escaped the jam by getting Dan Lapham on a fly to right.
Middletown starter Luke Weisenberg, who was pitching for the first time in two weeks after resting a back muscle injury, did his team proud through four innings. He created trouble for himself in the fifth by walking leadoff man Willett and hitting Mangiameli on an 0-2 count with one out. Penney followed with a bouncer to first that was misplayed for an error, with Willett scoring for a 3-2 Blue Devils lead.
Covello jumped on the first pitch from Weisenberg, pulling it just inside the bag at third for a two-run double and 5-2 advantage.
“You want to get a good hit for the team, move runners over for the team, so that’s something I was keeping in my mind in that at-bat,” he said. “It’s a role (Basil) and I have talked about. But my approach doesn’t change. I’m always trying to go the other way. I got it a little early, I believe it was an offspeed (pitch).
“I’m just pleased the runs scored and we won the game.”
Weisenberg allowed all five runs, but three errors by his defense led to four being unearned. The right-hander gave up five hits, walked two and struck out five.
“We weren’t sure if he’d be able to throw at all this week,” said Botti. “We had two losses early in the week, and he just told me he wanted the ball today. He really brought it. I thought he’d give us three or four innings and he gave us five. Coginchaug is a good team and he ran out of gas at the end. He worked hard on a hot day. He did a really good job as a sophomore against a team that’s a defending state champion.”
Middletown’s four-game week concludes Friday with a CCC South game against Maloney in Meriden. The Dragons play four more next week, including a rematch with Coginchaug on May 20.
MORE TO COME …