Baseball: Post 86 15-U team begins state playoffs Sunday

The Wilton American Legion Post 86 Prep (15U) baseball team opens the state playoffs on Sunday with a game at noon at Wolcott.

Wilton (9-11) is seeded seventh in the Southern Division of the bracket, while Wolcott is the second seed. The 16-team tournament concludes next Sunday, July 30.

This is the first year that Post 86 has sponsored a 15U team, which is made up primarily of players going into their sophomore year of high school. Three players are rising freshmen.

“It’s a good group of kids. There’s not a bad apple in the group, as far as attitude goes,” said head coach Tom Neville. “It’s been a worthwhile season. It’s been fun.”

Things got off to a slow start, at the team was 0-4 after four games and 3-8 after 11 games. After that, Post 86 went on a roll, going 6-1 in July before a couple of tough losses to end the regular season last Tuesday, finishing third in the Zone 4 standings.

Post 86 ended up seven games behind Zone 4 champ Fairfield, and six games behind second-place Greenwich, but according to coach Neville the Wilton crew wasn’t too far behind either of those teams in terms of ability.

Wilton was 0-4 against Fairfield, with three of the losses coming by a combined four runs. The team was 2-2 against Greenwich, with both losses being one-run defeats.

“The two best teams we could have easily beaten three times. Fairfield came back for wins in three of the four games. There’s so much parity from top to bottom,” said Neville. “I always felt the team could play with anybody. We beat ourselves more than other teams beat us.”

In Tuesday’s final regular-season games, Post 86 lost to Fairfield 6-5 in 12 innings, in a continuation of a game started earlier in the month; and then fell in the nightcap, 2-0

Post 86 features 12 players from Wilton: Connor Burke, Lewis Cropper, Matthew Dooley, Christian Eidt, Will Gioffre, Erik Lebek, Shane McCaghey, Dominick Polito, Sean Purdy, Anthony Saldutti, Alex Schestag, Andrew Travers and John Walsh. The other three players are from Weston: Dante Esposito, Aidan Kyle and Stephen Marshalko.

“Most of these kids didn’t play with their high school freshman teams. I think only three were on the team. The rest of them had gotten cut,” said Neville, who also had several players who hadn’t seen much action during the spring due to injuries. “Some of our better guys were a little bit behind the eight ball when we started the season.”

The team has seen steady improvement since early June, particularly on the mound. Wilton’s pitching has been outstanding over the last three weeks, holding opponents to two runs or less in seven of nine games.

“At the beginning of the season we walked nine to 10 hitters a game, and that was on average. The kids worked on their control and we started to turn that around,” said Neville. “If we walked three guys in a game (in the second half of the season), that was a lot.”

The team’s main pitchers are Esposito, Lebek, Purdy, Walsh, Schestag, Travers, Kyle and Marshalko.

Travers began the season with arm trouble but has been key in coming on in limited, ‘big spot’ situations. Marshalko pitched some great games earlier in the season but now is sidelined with an injury.

In the last month, Post 86 got a two-hitter from Schestag in a 2-1 win over Stratford on July 5. Three days after that, Esposito, Kyle and Lebek combined for a three-hitter in a 2-1 win over Stamford.

On July 10, it was Esposito, Schestag and Travers combining for a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 win over Stamford.

Purdy took a shutout into the seventh on July 12 against Greenwich, with Travers coming in to get the final two outs in a 3-1 win.

Last Saturday, Walsh (five innings) and Esposito (two innings) combined for a two-hit shutout in a 2-0 win over Darien, and last Monday, Lebek allowed only five hits in the team’s 11-1 win over Stamford.

In the 2-0 loss to Fairfield on Tuesday, Purdy and Esposito combined for a four-hitter but were hurt by four Wilton errors that allowed two unearned runs to score.

Neville said that McCaghey, the team’s catcher, overcame an early arm injury to become the team’s best player, hitting at or above .500.

“He was by far our highest hitter.” he said.

Lebek and Travers were also key hitters this season, while Purdy came on strong at the end of the season hitting in the number-five spot.

While Neville ended the regular season confident that Post 86 had the ability to play with anybody, the team unfortunately won’t be at full strength for the playoffs. Two players, Purdy and Polito, can’t play because they’re now over the age limit. Travers, who Neville said was the team’s best athlete, will be away for the opening games.

The loss of those players, particularly Travers at shortstop, means Neville will have be creative in how he fields his defense.

“It’s going to be tough. The kids are going to have to learn brand new positions,” he said. “We’re just so thin now that anyone I move to pitcher is going to leave a big hole.”

But after making so much progress over the course of the season, Post 86 isn’t about to go out quietly, or quickly.

“If we can find a way through a couple of games — and it may take a miracle — then we get one of our better players back,” Neville said.