CHESHIRE — Staples pitcher Chad Knight delivered about as insightful a postgame comment today as one will ever hear from a losing player:
“Winning is only made special if you lose once in a while,” Knight said after the Wreckers’ season ended with a 4-3 Class LL quarterfinal loss to Cheshire. “Losing humbles you, and it makes you appreciate winning.”
Such awareness from a junior who will be playing at Duke in the fall of 2019 should not be much of a surprise. And it may take some Wreckers until tomorrow or Monday before such a sentiment sinks in. But today’s setback will indeed make the 19 victories this season, including the four postseason wins, that much more special.
“To attempt to defend our state championship the way these kids did this season was special,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said. “They really stood tall.”
Knight probably deserved a better fate against the No. 4-seeded Rams (19-4), who will face the Fairfield Prep-East Hartford winner in Tuesday’s semifinals. A decisive three-run bottom of the fourth, when Cheshire had one hard-hit ball off Knight, might have stuck in the craw of most pitchers for months. Not Knight.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” said Knight, who struck out 10 and walked none while allowing 10 hits. “Cheshire is a great hitting team and they make you pay. They didn’t hit the ball hard that inning but that’s baseball. We lost today by one. It just makes all the wins and last year that much more phenomenal.”
Knight was outpitched by Cheshire ace and West Point-bound Ben DeLaubell. DeLaubell allowed five hits and struck out five. The tall righthander did have some control issues as he walked two, hit two batters and threw a pair of wild pitches. He also had three hits and would have had four if not for a sensational Junior Griffey-like catch by Staples center fielder Chris Drbal at the 390-foot sign in dead centerfield in the bottom of the sixth.
“It seems Ben is a better hitter when he is pitching,” Cheshire coach Bill Mrowka said of his ace pitcher. “He didn’t have his best stuff today but he’s a four-year starter; he’s our guy.”
“Those were two Division I pitchers on the mound today,” McFarland added. “You knew this was going to be a one-run game.”
After Staples threatened in the first inning and left the bases loaded, Cheshire jumped on Knight in the bottom of the first, collecting four hits while scoring once, although Knight rebounded by retiring seven of the next eight hitters.
But the No. 5-seed and FCIAC runner-up Wreckers (19-6) got even in the top of the fourth. Max Popken started the rally with a line single to center and Adam Petro followed with a base hit to left. But DeLaubell induced Zach Zobel to bounce into a 6-3 double play, leaving Popken on third with two outs.
Keven Rabacs then came through as Cheshire shortstop Ben Schena was unable to handle his chopper over the mound and the score was tied.
Then came the the fateful bottom of the fourth.
Ian Battipaglia led off with a long double to right-center, the only hard-hit ball by the Rams during the three-run uprising. Paul Villecco followed with a beautiful bunt single, leaving runners on first and third. Schena then reached on a rare Staples error, giving the Rams the lead.
Ryan Strollo made it 3-1 when his grounder snuck through the right side of the infield, and DeLaubell’s slow roller to short gave the hosts a 4-1 advantage.
“(Cheshire) had some infield hits and some in the hole that inning but that’s going to happen,” McFarland said. “But Chad is a bulldog and he finished strong.”
Knight retired nine of the final 10 batters but the damage was done in the fourth. The Wreckers did manage to get back within one in the top of the fifth, thanks to some DeLaubell wildness.
Knight led off with a single and one out later Matt Stone was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game. After DeLaubell got Harry Azadian to fly out, he walked Popken to load the bases. Then, with Petro at bat, DeLaubell uncorked two wild pitches and it was a 4-3 game.
In the home sixth, with one out and runner on first, Drbal made the play of the game … or perhaps the season, leaping high above the top of the wall to rob DeLaubell of a two-run homer.
“The same thing happened last year (in the first round of the state tournament opener at Staples),” Mrowka said. “Same centerfielder, same hitter, same play.”
“That,” added Knight, “was the best play I have ever witnessed.”
Meanwhile DeLaubell was retiring the final seven batters he faced. The Wreckers’ bid to defend their championship was coming to an end.
And the appreciation for the all the winning during the last two seasons was just beginning.