Pictured: Old Saybrook’s Shoreline championship comes four decades after the school’s last title. “I just can’t say enough about all of these kids,” first-year head coach Ryan Fraser (far left) said. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Marc Silvestrini
MIDDLETOWN — Back in March, you could have gotten slightly longer odds on Old Saybrook winning the Shoreline Conference baseball championship than the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the World Series.
But then again, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have Connor Lane.
Lane, a sophomore who earlier in the day was named First Team All-Shoreline Conference, pitched the final 3 1/3 innings Friday at Palmer Field, holding Valley Regional scoreless, as Old Saybrook came from behind to beat the Warriors 4-2 to win their first conference title since the early 1980s.
Lane, the winning pitcher, was just as effective at the plate, collecting two hits, a walk and a run scored. He also knocked in the go-ahead run with a ringing double to left-center in the fifth inning.
“What can I say? He was just awesome,” said Old Saybrook coach Ryan Fraser. “He comes from a baseball family, he loves the game and he works very hard every day to get better.”
“I just can’t say enough about guys like Connor and Noah (Grace),” added Fraser, a first-year, first-time head coach who was hired just a month before spring practice began. “I just can’t say enough about all of these kids.”
Grace came up with what was probably the biggest of Saybrook’s five hits on the day when, with two out and the bases loaded in the top of the third, he lined a two-run single to center off Valley starter James Marsden to tie the score at 2.
The win improves Old Saybrook’s record to 17-4 as the Rams head into next week’s CIAC Class S tournament. The Warriors, now 20-3, are the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
“They got the big hits when they really needed them, and we didn’t,” Valley coach Brian Drinkard said. “I thought we had them on the ropes early in the game, but we couldn’t put them away and let them off the hook.
“Today was a tough one, but I’m proud of my kids and the way they’ve played throughout this season,” he added.
When asked if he anticipated any lingering ill effects from Friday’s loss as his teams prepares to move into the Class S tournament, Drinkard said simply: “We’ll be fine.”
Valley looked more than fine in the first inning. After Marsden escaped from a bases-loaded, two-out jam without yielding a run in the top of the inning, leadoff hitter Sam Hutchinson blasted a long, 340-foot home run into the right field bleachers off Ram starter Jake Butler to give the Warriors a quick 1-0 lead. It was Hutchinson’s team-leading sixth homer of the year.
Marsden then followed with a ground single to right and scored two batters later on a single into short center by catcher Reed Beighau to give the Warriors a 2-0 lead.
The score remained at 2-0 until Lane drilled a solid single to left with one out in the top of the third. Two walks and a strikeout loaded the bases with two gone at which point Grace drilled his clutch single to center to score pinch runner Noah Hubbard, who ran for Lane, and Butler, who had drawn one of the walks, to knot things at 2.
Valley threatened in the last of the fourth when Andrew Salbinski led off with a double, but Butler fanned the next two Warrior batters, bringing No. 9 hitter, Jack Finnegan to the plate.
At that point Fraser went to the mound, moved Butler to second base and brought catcher Lane, in to pitch. The threat ended when Lane retired Finnegan on an infield popup.
“I felt we had to have that out because Hutchinson was on deck and I didn’t want to have to deal with him,” Fraser said. “And Connor went out there and got us that out.”
Shortstop Noah Hester led off the Rams’ fifth with a line single to center and Lane followed by hitting a rocket to the gap in left-center, scoring Hester that gave Saybrook a 3-2 lead.
Drinkard then relieved Marsden with hard-throwing Colin Carver, who promptly retired Butler on a liner to right that moved Lane to third. Following a strikeout for the second out of the inning, Carver walked Auggie Albert before unleashing a wild pitch that brought Lane in from third to make the score 4-2.
Lane, who has verbally committed to UConn, got into a bases loaded jam after two were out in the Warrior fifth by walking a pair behind a Carver single but escaped further trouble by fanning the dangerous Salbinski.
A Brayden Sparaco single and a hit batter then put the tying runs on base with none out in the Valley sixth, but two excellent fielding plays — a would-be sacrifice bunt by Finnegan that Lane fielded in front of the mound before rifling a throw to third baseman Carson Brown to nip Sparaco, and an excellent pick-up by Grace at first base and quick pitch to Lane, who had raced over to cover the bag — turned the Warriors away empty-handed.
An infield error and a walk put two more Warriors on base in the last of the seventh. But Lane was up to the task, striking out two after the error and inducing a fly ball to center fielder Nick Rothman after the walk to end the game and give the Rams their first league title in 40 years.
“I struggled a little, I was a little gassed, especially after catching the first three innings,” Lane said, adding that he threw mostly two-seam fastballs because his curve was not as sharp as it has been on other occasions.
“They’re a very good team and they’ve had a great season, but we’re a confident team. We came in here expecting to win because we know we’re pretty good, too.”
Lane gave up two hits, struck out three, walked three and hitting a batter. Butler gave up two runs on five hits, struck out six and walked one in three and 2 1/3 innings of work.
Lane had two of the Rams’ five hits, while Grace had a hit and two RBIs. Hester and Butler had the team’s other hits, while Albert drew four walks in his four plate appearances and stole two bases.
Valley got seven hits from seven different players. Hutchinson’s homer provided one of their two ribbies while Beighau plated the other with a single.
Marsden allowed four runs on four hits in his four innings of work, fanned eight and walked four. Carver pitched three innings of scoreless, one-hit relief, striking out four and walking four.
Now, about them Pirates …
Old Saybrook……002 020 0–4 5 2
Valley Regional…200 000 0–2 7 0
Batteries: OS–Butler, Lane (4) and Lane, Devaney (4); VR–Marsden, Carver (5) and Beighau. WP: Lane; LP: Marsden; 2B: OS–Lane; VR–Salbinski; HR: VR–Hutchinson. Records: Old Saybrook 17-4; Valley Regional 20-3.