Pictured: Middletown’s Tyler Powell dives back to first base in the second inning as Hand’s Troy Pasciak awaits the pickoff throw. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

By Danny Atkinson
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

MADISON — Middletown was able to upset Platt and Torrington in the first two rounds of the CIAC Class L baseball tournament largely due to clutch hitting, quality fielding and baserunning and strong pitching, particularly from relievers.

Unfortunately, the 29th-seeded Blue Dragons did not execute in these areas at No. 12 Daniel Hand in Saturday’s quarterfinal round.

After a groundout by Middletown’s Eric Wilson off of Hand starter Ryan Knight scored the first run of the game in the top of the first, the Tigers put up a combined six runs in the third and fourth innings against Caleb Reed and reliever Justin Almeida with the help of sloppy fielding. The Blue Dragons also wouldn’t score again, as Hand went on to a 7-1 win.

Middletown finishes the season with a 10-13 overall record. A sub-.500 record might not seem like much, but this was the program’s first appearance in a state quarterfinal in 31 years.

First-year head coach Dan Botti led the Blue Dragons back to the tournament after a two-year absence. Meanwhile, defending Class L champion Hand (15-9) plays on top-seeded Windsor in a Tuesday semifinal.

Middletown committed three errors, allowed three passed balls and had one runner caught stealing and another picked off. Five Blue Dragons were left on base. The ramifications of those mistakes and a lack of execution were huge, Botti said.

Justin Almeida was on the hill for the final three innings of Middletown’s last game of the season. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

“We’ve struggled as a team when our defense has, and today we booted too many balls and made baserunning mistakes,” he said. “When you’re playing the defending champs, those things can’t happen.”

The first two innings went well for Middletown. The Dragons made right-hander Knight work hard, putting four baserunners on. Leadoff hitter Tyler Powell walked and went to second on Dan Lapham’s single, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Wilson’s groundout. Mason Neumann and Andrew Strickland singled in the second, but catcher Connor Powell caught Neumann trying to steal second to end the inning.

With pitchers Tyler Powell and Luke Weisenberg unavailable, Botti turned to Reed. He was very effective in the opening two frames as he kept the ball down and jammed hitters while mixing pitches well. Reed struck out three batters, two looking, and allowed two weak singles.

After Middletown went down quietly in the top of the third, Reed and his defense began struggling. Ben Kuja led off with a double on a fastball down the middle, and Jeffrey Pinover’s single with one out tied the game at 1.

With two outs, Pinover advanced to third on a passed ball and error by Weisenberg on William Kranzler’s grounder. Axl Pinder singled home Pinover to give Hand the lead, and a passed ball moved both runners up. Troy Pascik capped the scoring with a single down the left-field line to give the Tigers a 4-1 lead. All of Hand’s hits came on pitches over the middle of the plate.

The Blue Dragons’ offense could not score in the top of the fourth despite two infield errors, as Weisenberg was picked off at first with a runner on third and Strickland up. Almeida entered in relief to try and keep the deficit at three, but two Hand runs later put the game out of reach. Kranzler’s line drive to center scored one run and the second came in on a fielding error. Almeida got a groundout to end the inning, but the damage was done.

“I think we took poor angles to balls,” senior captain Ryan Quinn said. “We have a lot of younger guys who can still improve (defensively). The errors were demoralizing and a big reason we lost.”

The Blue Dragons continued to put runners on in the final three innings but could not muster a rally as Knight became more efficient with his pitches. AJ Quinn walked in the fifth but was retired on a fielder’s choice, Neumann and Reed singled and reached on an error but were stranded when Weisenberg grounded out, and Lapham ended the game with a popup and Powell at first. Hand scored its final run in the fifth on a triple by Kuja, scoring pinch hitter William Bazenas.

“After the first we were feeling good but afterwards we just made a lot of loud outs with guys on and didn’t come through like normal,” Botti said. We started to struggle late, but I liked our overall approach.”

Knight ultimately put together a complete-game win. He improved his control and forced more weak contact late in the game. Knight allowed five hits and a run while striking out four and walking two.

Hand coach Travis Lapointe discussed the performance of his offense as well as Knight.

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence offensively,” he said. “We’re being patient and seeing and hitting the ball very well. When you put pressure on the defense it usually leads to mistakes at some point, and we took advantage. Knight was incredible on three days’ rest. He pitched with a lot of heart.”

Kuja had three hits and an RBI and scored three runs for the Tigers. Pinover had two hits and an RBI and scored twice and Kranzler reached three times and scored once and added an RBI.

Powell singled, walked and scored Middletown’s lone run. Lapham, Reed, Neumann and Strickland also had hits. Reed took the loss, allowing four runs (two earned) and six hits while striking out four in his three innings. Almeida allowed four hits and two earned runs in three innings.

Botti said he was pleased with both pitchers.

In Botti’s first season, the team had four more regular-season wins than last year to earn the tournament berth, rebounded from a 2-8 finish over its last 10 games and came together to beat challenging tournament opponents. Botti, a Middletown High baseball alum, and his underclassmen can build on that boost of confidence for next season.

“I am incredibly proud of this group,” he said. “All the players believed we could make and win tournament games. The coaches are not surprised by this run. These guys can be the players that turn the program around.”

Quinn discussed how rewarding it was to end his career by helping lead the team to the quarterfinals and strongly believes the returning players can improve upon their success.

“This run feels amazing. We thought we could do it, but once the tournament started, we became more focused,” said Quinn, who will go on to play at Anna Maria College after another American Legion summer with Middletown Post 75. “This could just be a tip of the iceberg for my returning teammates and the program.”

Meanwhile, Lapointe knows what Hand must do to upset Windsor and return to the Class S final.

“I think we played the toughest schedule in the state and it made us ready for this,” he said. “We’re playing our best and just have to avoid mistakes.”

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