Baseball: After frustrating preseason, WHS opens in peak form

After three weeks of relentless, raw, recalcitrant weather, the remaining salt-laced snow drifts and sopping wet grounds disappeared. Memories of four cancelled pre-season scrimmages and two regular-season game postponements were just that.
Instead, on a perfect day for baseball – 70 degrees, bright sunshine and a slight breeze – the Wilton High baseball team defeated the Westhill Vikings, 1-0, on Monday at Wilton’s Varsity Field.

“It was a great win for us,” said a happily animated head coach Tim Eagen. “That’s a very, very good team we beat today. We had only one scrimmage and couldn’t even use our own infield for most of the pre-season. You can’t even practice game conditions when you’re inside. But the way we played today, it was as if we were in a playoff game.”

Warrior mound ace Billy Black (1-0) threw brilliantly, as he allowed no runs on just three hits, walked three, hit a batter and struck out nine. His focus and composure were impeccable and that extended to an off the mound infield masterpiece that ended the game.

Nursing his one-run lead, Black opened the Viking seventh by walking Bobby Zmarzlak. A well-executed sacrifice by Montana Semmel advanced pinch runner Noel Martinez to second. Veteran second baseman Collin Kahal’s play on tricky groundball out to second moved the runner to third.

With two outs, Black, who had not allowed a base runner to Westhill’s bottom third of the order, walked the number nine hitter, TJ Wainwright, to put runners at the corners. It was a precarious situation. An error, a balk, any little mistake and the game would be tied.

Eagen paid a visit to the mound to remind his pitcher and infielders of how to defense the delayed steal.

“We practiced it over and over again in the fieldhouse,” Eagen said.

Both practice and warning paid off. With two strikes on leadoff batter Mike Grafstein, Black went into his stretch. Wainwright immediately raced toward second base. Black calmly stepped off the rubber and looked the runner back to third. Then he turned toward second. But instead of making a throw there, he whirled and fired a strike to third, where Kyle Phillips slapped a tag on the adrift runner for the game-ending out.

“I had to make sure I came to a full set before I stepped off the mound,” said Black. “I think I kept my cool and that’s something I’ve been working on.”

“Billy pitched a great game,” said pitching coach Mark Ketley. “He kept his composure and nothing seemed to bother him. A year ago, he might have wandered around on the mound showing that a call or a play affected him. That didn’t happen today.”

The Warriors got the only run of the game early and fast. Drew Connolly led off the Wilton first with a solid double over the third-base bag. Kahal followed with a walk and Henry Stremcki launched a double to deep left centerfield. A walk to Dillon Lifrieri loaded the bases and the Warriors looked to be off to the races. Viking hurler John MacDonald (0-1) had other ideas as he retired the next three Warrior hitters to minimize the damage.

From that point on, pitching and defense took over. Wilton didn’t help itself offensively with base running gaffes in the second and third innings. But its defense neutralized whatever potential offense Westhill put together — specifically Stremcki’s perfect throw to nail a runner trying to advance from first to third in the fourth inning, and shortstop Lifrieri’s dazzling glove and arm on a ground ball behind second base in the sixth. The Vikings never got a runner to third base until their final at-bat.

“We had to overcome some mistakes but for every negative play we had that put us in trouble, we got a positive play from our defense,” Eagen said.

“What a great win,” he continued, savoring the moment. “A game like this will help us immensely because we beat such a quality team. It gives us confidence right away.”

Eagen was also happy with his decision to leave Black in the game.

“I’m glad I left him in to go the distance. It shows the competitor he is. It would have been really bad to lose the game and then have Billy not be able to pitch until next week because of his high pitch count.”

Westhill dropped to 1-1 overall and 0-1 in the FCIAC.

The Warriors are scheduled to play at Norwalk today at 4, and New Canaan at Mead Park on Thursday at 4:30. They visit Weston on Saturday for a 10:30 a.m. start at Revson Field.