Pictured: Noah Hester scores Old Saybrook’s first run of the first inning and the floodgates opened. The Rams would score five more times for an early 6-0 lead and cruise behind the pitching of Noah Grace, Connor Lane and Carson Brown. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
OLD SAYBROOK – Two first-pitch hits and the tone was set in stone – a crushed drive to deep right by Noah Hester for a double and a ringing RBI single to center off the bat belonging to Connor Lane.
From there, line drive after line drive.
Old Saybrook batted around in the first inning, scoring six times against Cromwell, and bookended their start with a nine-run barrage in its final at-bat. By game’s end, the Rams had stacked up 19 hits in a 16-2 victory that punched their ticket to the Shoreline Conference tournament championship game.
“I think that was the goal from the beginning,” said Hester, “just put pressure on their defense. Attack. Jump out early and get an early lead. I think we did that.”
Nick Scalzo had the greatest of great performances at the plate by Old Saybrook hitters, going 5 for 5 with two doubles, two RBIs and three runs scored. Postgame, the senior left fielder got a well-earned bucket of ice water dumped on him.
The Rams (17-5), seeded second in the tournament after a 15-win regular season (and a 10-win turnaround from 2021), will meet top seed Valley Regional in the final on Friday night at Palmer Field. The Warriors (20-2) beat North Branford 8-3 at home for their 14th straight win.
“Credit goes to the guys. They were ready,” Old Saybrook rookie coach Ryan Fraser said. “They jumped all over it. First pitch Noah had a hit. First pitch Connor had a hit. It was just a great way to start. We couldn’t have asked for a better start.”
Sophomore Auggie Albert doubled twice as part of a 4-for-5 day, drove in three runs and scored two. Lane had three hits and drove in a run, Hester finished with two hits, two RBIs and two runs scored and Ed Devaney contributed two hits and three RBIs.
After Lane’s hit drove in Hester and Jake Butler reached on a fielder’s choice that erased Lane at second, Scalzo really got the offense pumping by roping a single to center to plate Butler. Albert’s first-pitch drive to deep right scored Scalzo to give the Rams a three-run lead.
Starting pitcher Noah Grace went with a two-strike pitch on the outside corner from Cromwell starter Tysen Billings and hit a flare into right for a two-run single. Nick Rothman’s double moved Grace to third, and Grace ended up scoring on Ed Devaney’s single to right.
“We were definitely seeing the ball well as a team,” said Hester. “I was watching where they were (positioned) in the outfield and was trying to place it where they weren’t. It was our goal to get the pitcher out early and just start hitting early and start off strong.”
Devaney’s hit signaled the end of Billings’ outing. Brandon Berean relieved and struck out Carson Brown and Hester to stop the bleeding.
“To be down 6-0 pretty much when we get off the bus is tough,” Cromwell coach Christian Budzik said. “They hit though. Full credit to them. They had almost 20 hits and hit the ball hard and strung them together. We got beat.”
The sixth-seeded Panthers (9-13), who put two runners on in the first but failed to score off Grace, but their first two hitters aboard in the second. Sam Stergos reached on an error and Colby Dimenna on an infield hit. Grace induced a fielder’s-choice grounder before walking Ethan Ucol.
Elias Deleon’s single to left drove in Cromwell’s first run, setting the stage for left-handed power hitter Ian McMillan. To his credit, Grace kept the ball low in the zone with an array of fastballs and off-speed pitches, and McMillan could do little with it. His grounder to second scored Slifer to make it a 6-2 game before Grace got Zac Zajac to ground out to short to end the inning.
“It was a grind today,” said Grace, who went three full, an inning short of qualifying for his sixth win this season. “That’s a very good lineup. I faced them earlier this year and they’re just tough hitters. They put the bat on the ball. I was just trusting my game plan, attacking the zone and letting our great defense do what they do.”
Meanwhile, Berean kept Old Saybrook off the board in the second and third innings to give the Panthers at least a chance of cutting into their deficit, but they left two on against Grace in the third and runners at second and third in the fourth against winner Lane.
“Brandon pitched really, really well today,” Budzik said. “He kept us in the game, but we just couldn’t add on to that two we had and unfortunately they exploded in that last inning.”
The Rams scored in the fourth to pad their lead to 7-2 when Scalzo doubled with two out and came home on Albert’s sharp single to center.
Old Saybrook’s nine-run sixth against the combination of relievers Dimenna and Jess Elfrich was aided by two Cromwell throwing errors. Ed Devaney had a two-run hit, Hester hit a two-run double and Scalzo and Albert also had run-scoring hits.
Berean’s superlative effort in relief of starter Billings covered 4 2/3 innings. Berean allowed a run on three hits, walked three and struck out eight.
As Old Saybrook prepares for the Shoreline final, the Rams can draw from their 2-1 win over Valley in the teams’ only regular-season meeting April 18. Jake Butler, who went the distance in Monday’s 10-1 quarterfinal win over Old Lyme, is eligible to pitch. The Warriors have scored 23 runs in their two tournament wins and are averaging 9.6 runs per game during their winning streak.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Lane deadpanned. “We’re very excited.”
Lane got the win, working three scoreless innings in relief of Grace. He allowed one hit, walked one and struck out three. Brown got the final three outs.