Wilton Senior Legion team makes states, loses in second round

They waited.

The game was over, so was the regular season. Neither had ended well for Wilton’s Post 86 Senior American Legion baseball team. An anti-climactic 7-1 loss to Fairfield Post 143 now jeopardized Wilton’s state playoff hopes. Going into the game, Wilton was tied with Westport for the fifth and final Zone 4 tournament slot after stopping a seven-game losing streak with an improbable 7-6 win over league leader Greenwich. Wilton also owned the tie-breaker, having beaten Westport two games to one during the regular season.

It was simple: A Westport win over Stamford and the 2013 season was over for Wilton; a Westport loss and Wilton could play on.

After the Fairfield game, Wilton head coach Ian Thoesen had gathered his team together in the outfield of Fairfield’s Kiwanis Park. It is a routine, almost ritualistic procedure and after such a meeting his players collect gear and go home. This time it was different.

“Nobody go anywhere,” Thoesen said as he directed his players to the dugout.

They didn’t need encouragement. And that’s where they waited to hear news of the game being played at Cubeta Stadium between Stamford Post 3 and Westport.

An early report of Stamford leading 1-0 in the fifth inning allowed dugout optimism. But now all the players could do was sit, fidgeting, quiet with their talk. Meanwhile, Thoesen prowled the right-field foul line, purposely avoiding his players. Glued to his cell phone, he wanted no distraction from tracking as best he could the game’s progress.

Finally, he looked up and under his breath said: “I think we’re in. I think we’re in. I’ve got a text. Yeah, Stamford won, 3-0.”

With that, he called his players to the outfield and announced the news. It was the best kind of delayed reaction as players celebrated, soaked both Thoesen and assistant coach Jeff Slane with water and Gatorade, then came down from euphoria to consider the next game.

Sure, they had backed into a playoff spot and, yes, they had lost seven of their last eight games. But look at what they had done. They had beaten an overpowering Greenwich team in their previous game. They had played with severe attrition after losing their starting middle infield (Brett Phillips, Jordon Prince), starting catcher (Connor Buhler) and starting rightfielder (Scott Shouvlin) to injury. They had just lost a game using two Junior Legion players and three starters out of position.

With so many people playing out of position so much of the time, it was a tribute to the attitude and athleticism of the players and flexibility and will of the coaches that Wilton should make the tournament for the first time in eight years.

Despite new rules for the state playoffs — nine innings instead of seven, no Junior Legion call-ups — that further strained available manpower, Wilton, refreshed after a day of rest, traveled to Shelton last Saturday to take on Shelton at the Shelton High School baseball field. Though temperature gauges read a few degrees cooler, there still was no escaping the high noon sunshine that pounded down on the Shelton diamond.

Ben Rappaport started for Wilton and pitched seven strong innings, holding Shelton at bay after his offense had staked him to a 4-0 lead with a four-run second inning. He had only one real lapse and that was in the fourth inning when he issued two bases-loaded walks that cut the Post 86 lead to 4-3.

Wilton got its four runs when James Meany started the inning by reaching first on an infield error. Base hits by Alex Jacobson, JT Morin, Will Bruschi and Sean Osgood, and an RBI groundout by Zach Ellenthal, produced the four runs that would give Post 86 the game.

Morin relieved Rappaport to start the eighth, allowing a base hit and nothing more. But Shelton’s final at-bat was a nail-biter. CJ Rizzo led off with a double, and a single past third base by Vin Backert put runners at the corners. A one-out walk to Hudson Boles loaded the bases, but Morin responded by striking out Matthew Foley.

Morin had just finished throwing a strike to Brett Scanlon when, out of the blue, Rizzo dashed for the plate, attempting to catch Morin napping with a delayed steal.                                     Morin would have none of it, responding to the calls of “He’s going” by throwing the ball to catcher Ellenthal. It was a close but very clear play as Ellenthal administered the tag and held onto a squirming ball for the game-ending out in the 4-3 triumph.

It was the second straight save for Morin and the second time he had been involved in a non-routine, game-changing play.

The following day Wilton met the Bethel Admirals at Bethel High School’s Hunt Field. For seven innings, the teams battled each other evenly, using two-out rallies (two for Bethel, one for Wilton) to do most of the damage.

In the fifth, with Post 86 leading by a run, starter Ethan Segall got the first two outs quickly with routine ground balls to shortstop. Segall, who had pitched so grittily against Greenwich Post 29, appeared on his way to another such performance but ran into trouble when Stephan Conway reached on an infield hit. Nick Spinella ripped a double to left for a run and Jake Voorhees singled him home for another. Segall hung on, getting a strikeout to end the inning, but the Admirals were up, 4-3.

It stayed that way until two were out in the Wilton seventh. Ellenthal whacked a sinking line drive to left. In a do-or-die attempt at a shoestring catch, the leftfielder couldn’t come up with the ball and away it rolled on its way to where the buffalo roam. Ellenthal made it to third and only had a minute to rest when Bruschi clobbered a triple to deep centerfield.

Bethel starter Mike Crimi was lifted in favor of Mike Koch, and Andrew Jacobson met him rudely, smashing a double down the left-field line, chasing home Bruschi. Then it was Rappaport’s turn as he laced a single to left, plating Jacobson, and putting Wilton ahead by two runs at 6-4.

Bethel used its second two-out rally to tie the game. This time it was Wilton hurler Trevor Blond who got two quick outs. Then three singles, the final being a two-run infield hit by Cody Johnson, drew the Admirals even.

Post 86 could do nothing against Koch in the eighth or Austin Bonadio in the ninth. Meanwhile, Wilton’s beleaguered pitching staff couldn’t hold Bethel. In the eighth, four walks, a hit batsman, an error and just two hits produced four runs as the Admirals batted around to put the game away and win, 10-6.

“What a great group of kids,” said Thoesen, shaking his head. “We had half our team missing half the time and we wouldn’t give in. That seven-game losing streak — it seemed like everybody was missing. But I have to say that a guy I think had an MVP season was Zach Ellenthal. It seemed he played about every infield position, but what surprised us was how well he filled in at catcher for Connor Buhler. There was no replacing Buhler, but Zach gave us a real presence behind the plate. There was no question that he was the team’s best hitter as well.”

Wilton finished the season with a 14-15 record and proved with its first-round win that it belonged in the state tournament. It has come close in four of the past five years, always having the season come down to the final game, always having something stand in the way of securing a post-season berth. Not this time.