MIDDLETOWN — Paul Fabbri has spent the whole season squeezing every last drop of effort out of pitcher Matt DeLuca. The coach’s reliance on the strong sophomore certainly played an integral part in getting the Ridgefield baseball team into the state championship game for the first time in school history.
So, no surprise that today against Cheshire, when it got to the final inning of the season and with Cheshire threatening to break a scoreless tie, Fabbri tried to get one last memorable moment out of his young righthander.
But this time DeLuca was spent. He departed after walking two batters with one out in the top of the seventh to load the bases before MVP Ben DeLaubell delivered for Cheshire what proved to be the winning RBI groundout against Ridgefield reliever Jake Artzt.
“Matt was on fumes at the end; he was dancing between raindrops, but it was his game and that’s why he stayed in,” Fabbri said after Cheshire’s 1-0 victory in the Class LL final at Palmer Field.
DeLuca started the seventh having thrown 92 pitches, and then allowed a leadoff single by Cheshire’s Ian Battipaglia. After a sacrifice bunt by Paul Villecco, DeLuca was at 97 pitches, and this was after pitching 1 1/3 innings of relief in the No. 3 Tigers’ semifinal win over Amity on Wednesday, and after tossing a shutout against Newtown last Saturday.
“I was excited and confident in the seventh inning but I guess I was a little sore,” DeLuca said. “I was fine with (working Wednesday). It actually helped to get my adrenaline flowing today.”
With a runner in scoring position and one out, Fabbri was not going to remove his pitcher now, nor did he after DeLuca walked the next batter, Ben Schena. Finally, after walking Ryan Strollo to load the bases and with DeLaubell, Cheshire’s best hitter (and winning pitcher), striding to the plate, the coach made the change. After 106 pitches, Fabbri had received all he could out of DeLuca, who, of course, handed the ball to the coach reluctantly.
“I thought I could get (DeLaubell) out,” DeLuca said.
“I’m amazed at what DeLuca has done for us,” Fabbri added. “The way he pitched against Newtown, then coming in and finishing it off against Amity, and now this. He’s just never fazed.”
With Artzt on the mound, Fabbri now had another tough decision: pull the infield in for a play at the plate or stay back and hope for an inning-ending double play. With the less than fleet West Point-bound DeLaubell up, Fabbri went with double-play depth.
“I remember Joe Torre (and the 2001 Yankees) getting beat (in the seventh game of the World Series) by a bloop hit (by Luis Gonzalez),” Fabbri said. “DeLaubell doesn’t have a ton of wheels, so we kept the infield back.”
Artzt did a great job pitching to DeLaubell but, sure enough, he hit a slow chopper to second baseman Quinn McDonald, who only had one play and that was to first as Battipaglia scored the only run of the game.
“I knew at any point I had to be ready,” Artzt said of his relief role. “I was hoping to go in earlier but I was ready to face (DeLaubell). I knew he is their best player so I just needed to throw strikes. I was hoping for a double play ball but he just didn’t hit it hard enough.”
DeLaubell almost single-handedly knocked defending champion Staples out last Saturday in the quarterfinals with the bat and on the mound. This time he was held to one hit, but was magnificent on the mound, allowing just three singles and one walk.
“I just wanted to put the ball in play and get the run in,” DeLaubell said of the winning grounder. “The rest is history. But DeLuca really pitched a great game for them. He kept us off balance. We were lucky that we scored.”
With DeLuca, Alex Price and Artzt pitching, the Tigers (20-6) allowed just five runs in five state tournament games. In fact, opponents scored two runs or less in 15 of Ridgefield’s last 17 games.
But the way DeLaubell was dealing, one was all the Rams (21-6), who won their first state crown since 1993, would need.
“DeLaubell is a great pitcher and he threw strikes, we couldn’t get any clean swings on him. “Fabbri said. “Plus, we’re not the strongest hitting team, as we proved all year.”
The Tigers scored just three runs in the final 24 innings of the season.
Matt Costello led No. 4 seed Cheshire with two hits.
For Ridgefield, Nick Cullinan had an infield single in the fifth, Matt Restivo lined a single to center in the sixth and Nick Hanna singled to center with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
The Tigers are still looking for the first state championship, but they did get one step farther this year than last, when Staples beat them in the semifinals.
“To be better than we were last year,” Fabbri said, “is pretty remarkable. We had a great season.”