SOUTHINGTON - The Southington baseball team knows all about No. 6 Staples star Chad Knight.
The No. 3 Blue Knights were on hand to watch the senior standout toss a complete game, three-hit shutout against No. 1 Cheshire, the defending Class LL champions, striking out 10 batters along the way. And that was only the half of it.
Knight, a Duke commit who was also just drafted by the Yankees in the 31st round of the MLB draft, also smashed a solo home run to give Knight a True Win (when a pitcher creates more runs than he allows), one of the rarest feats in baseball. Southington (21-3) will be considered the favorite in terms of seeding when the two teams face off for the Class LL state title today at noon at Palmer Field, but the Blue Knights know the threat that Knight, one of the best players in the state, represents.
“We saw him hit that bomb and then strike out 10 guys,” junior Billy Carr said. “The dude was throwing strikes and pumping heat.”
Knight will likely find himself on the mound on today despite throwing a full seven innings on Tuesday night. Southington will counter with Ryan Henderson, who will have the full backing of his teammates and head coach Charlie Lembo.
“He's up in the rotation, and that's what we've done all year long,” Lembo said. “We have pretty much all hands on deck. Jake Neuman is eligible, but he did throw 107 pitches on Tuesday. Anyone we bring in, I'm confident they'll get the job done.”
Given Southington’s last four games in the tournament, it will likely need all hands on deck. The Blue Knights have needed almost every out of the tournament so far, winning all four contests by one run, including three by walk-off, to put themselves on the cusp of their first state title in 20 years. Carr was responsible for two of those walk-offs, and the last one came off the bat of Neuman in the state semifinals in the form of a game-winning double with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
For Southington, the walk-off heroics provide only a piece of the explanation as to why it is still standing in the state tournament.
“I couldn't be more proud of these guys, the way they've fought all tournament,” Lembo said. “I think what gets lost with the walk-offs and last minute heroics is that our defense has made some big plays, and our pitching has kept us in these games, and given us the chance for our offense to come through in a big spot.”
With Knight possibly seeing some innings on the rubber on Saturday, the Blue Knights know they will have to be tight in the field again, as any run can be crucial in a game where two quality arms will be dueling for history.
“Just pitching and keeping it clean in the field,” Carr said of the keys to the game. “Both teams have great pitching. If a ball is hit in play, we have to make the play. Maybe one or two runs can win this game, who knows.”
Should the state final be a one- or two-run game late, Southington should feel right at home, given its tournament run so far. Neither team has played each other to this point, but common opponents suggest that the Blue Knights could be in for another thriller. Both teams played Hall early in the season and won by blowout, and both groups played Darien later in the year and pulled out narrow, low-scoring victories. Oh, and both teams carry identical 21-3 records.
Of course, past experience can be thrown away when it comes to one winner-take-all contest. Lembo and the Blue Knights aren’t focused on resumes, seeding or walk-off wins. All that matters is the next seven (or more) innings.
“There are no guarantees,” Lembo said. “You can play a great game and lose, or play a mediocre game and win. It's just how the ball bounces sometimes. Our guys are confident, but we know that any team can beat anyone on any given day. We don't take anyone lightly.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org