RIDGEFIELD — Ben Cohen had the same questions about the Ridgefield pitching staff as everyone else two and a half months ago.
Cohen just got the answers well ahead of us.
There was Alex Price. And? And?
“We had winter workouts and I saw some of our pitchers and I was kind of concerned,” Cohen, the Tigers’ catcher, recalled. “We had Alex but I didn’t know what we had this year. But two days after pitchers and catchers I started smiling because I knew we had something special.”
Something special has materialized into a trip back to the Class LL semifinals following today’s 1-0 win over Newtown, gift-wrapped by Matt DeLuca, the Tigers’ No. 3 starter. Most admitted if this scenario had been presented back in those pitcher-and-catcher days, the Tigers would have been uneasy about their chances of advancing.
That was before DeLuca emerged as the imperturbable presence with pinpoint accuracy. His first career win was a no-hitter against New Milford. Today he gave up just one hit as third-seeded Ridgefield, the FCIAC regular-season champion, earned a semifinal meeting on Tuesday with perennial state power Amity.
“Everything was working today,” DeLuca said. “I was getting groundball outs because my team made all the plays. It was great.”
Following the final out, DeLuca calmly headed toward the dugout in the same manner he did following the first inning. And second. And third, fourth, fifth and sixth.
“I’ve been a head coach for 20 years and I don’t know that I’ve seen a sophomore with that kind of composure,” Ridgefield coach Paul Fabbri said. “I haven’t seen one that poised and unflappable out there, on a stage like this, against a team like that. To go out there inning after inning and do what he did. After not pitching in a game for two weeks.”
DeLuca’s last start was the regular season penultimate game against Westhill. The Tigers (19-5) were then stunned, walloped, 18-3 in the opening game of the FCIAC Tournament.
They have regrouped, and their drive has again been pitching-fueled. Jake Artzt, the No. 2 starter who has been DeLuca’s equal in reliability, allowed just two runs in the Class LL opener against Hartford Public. Fabbri had enough confidence to start Artzt over Price, even though postseason strategy orbits around survive and advance.
Price allowed just a single run in a second-round victory over Hamden. Continuing the pattern, DeLuca then did his staff mates one-fewer-run better.
“He doesn’t say much, he just comes in. To throw a 1-hitter against a pretty good lineup, with a pitcher like that where you’ve got to be great,” said Fabbri, referring to Kyle Roche, sixth-seeded Newtown’s starter, who allowed four hits and would have had another game to look forward to almost any other day. “That’s amazing. (Roche) didn’t deserve to lose that game.”
That’s a line Fabbri has used several times this season about an opposing team’s starter, stating facts rather than offering platitudes.
DeLuca should have given up a second hit that could have changed the immediate complex of the game. The Nighthawks’ Todd Peterson led off with what should have been a double. But Peterson failed to touch first base and the Tigers noticed and appealed.
“It rattled me a little bit but I got back and kept throwing strikes,” DeLuca said. “When we got that run it gave me a little bit of relief and gave me a lot of confidence.”
The Tigers scored in the fifth when Nick Cullinan led off with a double to leftfield. Cole Blackwell came in to run, got picked off but was still able to steal third. One out later Cohen came to the plate.
“I was just trying to get it over the infielders’ heads,” Cohen said. “The worst thing I can do there is hit a groundball. Just looking to get something in the air.”
Cohen did, a deep fly to center that he said may have been the farthest ball he has hit this year. Blackwell scored.
“For Cohen to come up with the game-winning RBI… He basically didn’t hit last year, caught 27 games and we DH’d for him,” Fabbri said. “He hit the ball right on the screws in a money situation.”
DeLuca now had what for him is becoming an insurmountable margin.
Ridgefield third baseman Pete Columbia made a great play on a short hop to get the first out in the seventh and, after a strikeout, got the final assist, sending DeLuca on his methodical stroll to the dugout that was soon interrupted by celebrating teammates.
DeLuca and Artzt have been the ingredients that have taken the Tigers from uncertainty to the Class LL Final Four.
“Both of them have done a phenomenal job of locating this year,” Cohen said. “Even when they don’t have all their pitches they locate the fastball well. Matt was doing a really nice job pounding inside with the fastball today. That’s something he and Jake have done really well all year.”
Ridgefield lost to Staples in the semifinals a year ago. The Wreckers then ended Amity’s run of state titles.
Now the Tigers draw Amity. But even before Fabbri knew Tuesday’s opponent, he was able to focus solely on his personnel.
“I like our chances on Tuesday with Alex Price,” Fabbri said.