American Legion: After 0-11 start, Post 86 battles back into playoff contention

With three games left in the regular season, Wilton’s Post 86 American Legion Senior baseball team (11-13) still has a chance to reach the Zone Four state playoffs.

The top four finishers in the zone qualify for post-season play. Though on the outside looking in, the fact that the Wilton Legion men would even be battling Fairfield, Westport and Norwalk for the final playoff slot is the story of the team’s season.

Post 86 began the summer campaign by losing 11 straight games. Then it won a game and lost another to reach its schedule midpoint at 1-12. The team looked to be out of contention for anything.

Furthermore, Post 86 had lost one of its key players, Henry Strmecki. The Middlebury College-bound, former tri-captain of this year’s Wilton High FCIAC championship team, Strmecki was expected to provide skill, leadership and depth as an outfielder and pitcher. Instead, after five games, a nagging injury put him on the shelf.

It didn’t help either that Post 86 had to start the season by playing the three teams — Greenwich, Stamford and Trumbull — that, at this time, have already handily clinched playoff spots.

Then the turnaround.

Starting with games against Darien/New Canaan on June 20, Post 86 has gone on a tear, winning 11 of its next 12 games to wedge its way into contention for post-season play. In the past week, Wilton scored wins over Westport, 4-2 and 5-2; Ridgefield, 5-3; and Fairfield, 2-1.

Wilton hosts Fairfield tonight (5:45), and ends the regular season on Thursday with a doubleheader at the Wilton High Varsity Field against Ridgefield (5:30) and Westport (7:30).

“This is a good group of kids,” said Post 86 head coach Ian Thoesen. “I told them it’s a 27-game season — a long season — and to stay positive. We have seven guys who have gone from Junior to Senior Legion. It’s a huge jump. But we also have a nucleus of guys who are veterans who have won a lot.”

That nucleus includes position players from last year: Collin Kahal, Jack DiNanno, Ryan Gabriele, Brendan Skewis and pitchers Ben Rusin and Jack Mastrianna, with Gabriele taking a regular turn as well.

Cole Judelson and Jack Dooley are first timers who started on the Wilton High varsity team. Rounding out the squad are Otto Stenzler, Chris Tienken, Matt Cipri, Rob Constantine, John Maggio, Jack Forgione and Colin Tietjen.

A more advantageous schedule has not been the prime reason for the team’s success. The reason for the team’s happy about-face is simple, according to Thoesen.

“We’ve just been playing a lot better. With all those one-run games, I knew we could compete against the best teams. I’m very happy with what I’m seeing now. Ben Rusin has been pitching lights-out all season and has been a big reason why we won 10 in a row. Ryan Gabriele had two quality starts,” he said. “Our defense has improved, our pitching is solid and our bats have come alive, especially Jack Dooley, who hit a home run the day before yesterday.”

Unfortunately for Post 86, the winning streak came to an end Monday night when Fairfield Post 143 beat Wilton, 3-0, at Fairfield’s Kiwanis Field. Charlie Hoover was the culprit as he out-dueled Mastrianna by throwing a three-hit shutout, striking out three, walking two and hitting a batter.

Hoover was also a force on offense, going 2-for-2 with a sacrifice and scoring two of his team’s three runs.

The big hit was Henry Prestagaard’s two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the fourth. Post 143 got its third run in the sixth when Hoover scored on a fielder’s choice.

For Wilton, Gabriele had double and walked while Judelson and Dooley each had a single.

Mastrianna kept his team very much in the game. He only gave up three hits, but he did walk four and hit a batter. He struck out four. He was very effective against Fairfield’s top of the order, but less so against the bottom third as he gave up a two-run single to the number-eight batter and an RBI groundout to the ninth batter.

Post 143 kept the pressure on Mastrianna by playing small ball, with sacrifice bunts (three) and stolen bases (three).

“Hopefully we can win out and something will happen with the other teams so that we can get in the playoffs,” Thoesen said. “We've come a long way. It would be a great way to finish.”