After a 4-1 start last season, the St. Joseph baseball team lost 10 of the following 12 games to send its postseason hopes to the brink of a cliff.
“I thought we underachieved and early on we lost a lot of close games and it snowballed,” Cadets coach Jim Chaves recalled. “We lost some heartbreakers. They were young kids and they didn’t know how to handle it. They would carry it over a little bit into the next game and if they got into a tight game they’d get a little tight. By the end of the year they were a much looser group.”
The team rebounded with two wins to earn a state tournament berth and again from a humbling 21-4 regular-season-ending loss against Staples to advance to the Class M semifinals before losing to Waterford, the eventual champion.
“I think the kids got some confidence,” Chaves said. “We’ve always stressed the regular season is what it is. Once we get to the tournaments the kids embraced it and they played really good baseball the last seven, eight games of the season.”
While the heart of their schedule lies ahead, at the quarter pole the Cadets have done nothing to dispel the optimism that greeted them this season. With one of the state’s most experienced rosters, they are off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 2 in the latest writers’ poll. They are averaging 15 runs a game.
“We 100 percent have high expectations this year,” Chaves said. “If you spoke to any of the kids on the team they would agree. Bottom line is we are still taking it one game at a time. They’re a loose bunch. A lot of them have played a lot of games. At this point they are actually enjoying the fact that they are upperclassmen now. We have five kids who played as freshmen two years ago. I think they are embracing they are the older kids on the team now.”
While the pitching staff is certainly not a weakness, it is the offense that figured to be the strength this spring. So far the numbers they have put up are what you would normally see in a video game.
Jim Evans is batting .722, with two home runs, 16 RBIs and 12 runs scored. His slugging percentage is a remarkable 1.444.
Charlie Pagliarini is close behind with a .714 batting average and 11 RBIs. Jake DeLeo has also driven in 11 runs and is hitting .474. The team average is .432.
It is not surprising that when Chaves was asked the Cadets’ greatest asset, his response was, “I think our lineup is deep, one through nine for sure. I think that’s our biggest strength. And we have five or six quality arms that can go on the mound to get outs at any given point, and defensively we are sound. But if I had to put the main thing on it, I would say our lineup.”
The Cadets don’t have a dominant starter like Staples’ Chad Knight, Ridgefield’s Alex Price or Trumbull’s Ben Fero, but Chaves has a deep rotation that provides him with situational advantages.
Al Paolozzi and Ben Talbot are the top starters, along with Hadyn Gourley and Trent Price. Because games have not been close thus far, no pitcher has thrown more than seven innings.
“We have four, five, maybe even six quality arms where we don’t even have to worry about lining up pitchers to who we’ll be playing, we’re just going to throw whoever is in line to throw that day,” Chaves said. “We’ve been fortunate the first five games not to run anyone deep out there. Guys come out of the pen, they have experience.”
Chaves said just one area is a potential cause for caution.
“The only concern I have, and the kids know it, is if we throw strikes during games,” Chaves said. “If pitchers throw strikes we will be solid. If we give too many free passes we will be in some dogfights we don’t need to be in. That’s been talked about. We had a little bit of an issue last year with walks.”
So far it has been a positive start, but Chaves is a realist. He knows the combined record of the Cadets’ opponents to date.
“We feel like we’re fairly deep but it’s early in the season,” Chaves said. “I won’t say we have played the strongest of schedules so everything out there is still to be determined.”
Top Of The Order
1. Staples (4-0). The Wreckers are coming off a 4-0 week and demonstrated good pitching depth in the process.
2. St. Joseph (5-0). The Cadets have been putting up big numbers with their potent attack.
2. Darien (6-1). The Blue Wave have benefited from getting all their games in — and more so by strong pitching that will provide them with staying power for playoff positioning.
4. Westhill (4-1). The Vikings appear to be strong in all areas. The most demanding part of their schedule is down the road, but they have outscored their opponents 45-10.
5. Ridgefield (4-1). The Tigers have been receiving a lot of respect because of their recent success and proving it is justified.