Newtown High School’s baseball team shook off an 11-3 setback to New Fairfield on May 4 with a 13-4 drubbing of New Milford in its next game, two days later. Not exactly nail-biting games, but these are not good examples of what this spring, on the whole, has been like for the Nighthawks. In fact, each of the seven games before the New Fairfield contest were battles, and nine of 16 games overall have been one- or two-run contests.
Now that’s playing it close.
Newtown carried a 7-9 record into the final four regular-season contests, and needing just one more victory to qualify for state tournament play. Newtown, after playing Stratford on May 9, will take on Bethel, Brookfield, and Pomperaug of Southbury to close out the season.
If the Hawks get into the playoffs, Coach Matt Memoli believes these tightly-contested battles will prove to benefit his team. After all, the players will be battle-tested and accustomed to competing in games in which a hit here, or pitch or defensive play there can decide the outcome, something that often comes with the territory come playoff time.
“It’s always beneficial for your team to play tight games and be in pressure situations on a regular basis. We had a number of games be decided by one play and those situations really separate the great teams from the average ones,” Memoli said.
“I really think, in the end, it’s beneficial to our team,” infielder Justin DeVellis said of playing close games.
The Nighthawks shook off a five-game losing streak with three consecutive wins, culminating with a 1-0 shutout of visiting Bunnell of Stratford on May 1. The game took only 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete because of a pitching-dominated affair between Newtown’s Pat Mullins and Bunnell’s Ron Rossomondo. Mullins dominated Bunnell the entire game, allowing just one hit and striking out seven.
The Hawks pushed across the game’s only run in the sixth inning. Steve Conway led off the inning with a walk. Conway reached second on a Julian Dunn groundout to shortstop because he was running on the pitch. The next hitter, senior captain Dean Demers, laced an opposite-field single that scored Conway.
Conway also added a hit in the win, as did DeVellis, Reid Schmidt, and Austin Raftery.
The Nighthawks followed up the quick contest with Bunnell with a three-plus hour, ten-inning battle at Masuk in Monroe the next day. They fell 7-6 after overcoming 3-0 and 5-3 deficits, then losing hold of a 6-5 lead in the eighth.
Virgil Procaccini led off the top of the eighth with a walk and was sacrificed to second base on a bunt by DeVellis. Procaccini hustled all the way around from second base to score on an infield single by Conway, giving the Hawks a 6-5 lead. Newtown had a chance for more. After Dunn was hit by a pitch and Demers walked to load the bases, Mullins got a hold of a pitch but lined out to centerfield.
Mullins went 3-for-5 with a run scored, and Procaccini had two of Newtown’s eight hits. Troy Larsen was strong in relief, pitching four-plus innings of scoreless ball before finally allowing the winning run to score as the host Panthers capitalized on a one-out error, two-out hit, and a collision at home plate.
Larsen doesn’t mind pitching in tough spots — score tied, game on the line. “I rely on my teammates. I know they have my back,” he said. “I just try to keep my cool and keep focused on the game.”
So are these games tense, fun, nerve-wracking? “They’re everything mixed in — so many different emotions,” Memoli said. “Playing in those games where one pitch, one play matters, it’s definitely going to make us stronger in the long run.”
Wins, no matter how close they are, meanwhile, help out when it comes to qualifying for the playoffs. Newtown is happy to have the occasional laugher too. In the win over New Milford, Mullins had two doubles, Conway and Brandon Marks each contributed two hits, DeVellis reached base three times with a hit and two walks, JP Blanco knocked in a run, and Reid Schmidt tripled.