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BRISTOL, Conn. â€“ While his two-run homer in the fifth inning proved to be the eventual game-winner on Thursday, that wasnâ€™t the main reason that Dave Belisle was smiling.
It was what Chris Wright did as a reliever - particularly in the bottom of the sixth - that had the Cumberland American manager beaming with the most pride after his teamâ€™s hard-earned 8-7 semifinal victory over Fairfield (Ct.) American in the New England portion of the Eastern Regional Tournament.
The young hurler came in for starter Max Hanuschak, who despite pitching no-hit ball for four-plus innings, was forced to retreat to the dugout after reaching the mandatory 85-pitch count. Wright, who was the remaining pitcher available from the CALL lineup, was not overpowering. In fact, Fairfield nearly erased a seven-run deficit in the final two innings with him on the hill.
The part that Belisle deemed crucial in the outcome occurred with one out and the bases full. Fairfield cut the lead to two runs on a fielderâ€™s choice hit that went off the arm of Wright, but allowed shortstop Jake Glod to make a diving stop and quick toss to third to get the second out.
Belisle went out to the mound and gave his pitcher a brief pep talk and then with his arm still stinging, the 12-year-old Wright managed to have enough heart and determination to get the last out, a grounder by Philip Vlandis to third baseman Connor Lavallee, who rifled the ball over to first baseman Colin Connata.
â€śThe boy to my left, right here, was put in a situation where I had no pitchers left,â€ť said Belisle, about Wright during the post-game press conference. â€śI had none. I didnâ€™t have any. I used all of them. We saved some if we made it to Saturday nightâ€™s [finals). I had confidence in Max and Chris to take us the way. This young boy got hit by that line drive and I asked him to finish. And finish, he did, with pain, with his heart hurting and his emotions flowing. I think itâ€™s one of the best pitching performances I have ever seen a 12-year-old go through. It was very stressful. I just tried to emotionally stay with him. Thatâ€™s all I could do as a coach. I couldnâ€™t pitch for him. I just wanted to let him know I was there for him. He was special out there.â€ť
What also was special was the result of Cumberland Americanâ€™s win over the defending New England titlists in Thursdayâ€™s contest at Breen Field.
With its victory, CALL (3-2) advanced to the championship finals this Saturday at 1 where it will face Andover (Mass.) National, a 9-4 victor over previously-unbeaten Goffstown (N.H.) in the other semifinal contest.
The winner of that game earns a date to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., beginning next week. CALL becomes the third straight area team to have that opportunity. In 2009, Lincoln made it to the finals and last year it was Cumberland National.
Both teams were ousted with Cumberland National losing its chance against Fairfield American.
â€śYou canâ€™t look at the past, but weâ€™re the future,â€ť Belisle said. â€śThose teams were fantastic. I told the kids, if we are going to get beat we are going to get beat by someone who is really good. I am looking forward to Saturday. If we lose, will it be a disappointment? Nope, it wonâ€™t be a disappointment. This team is a tremendous team and it would be we just got beat by a tremendous team.â€ť
With its usual potent-offense silenced for the first three games of pool play, Cumberland American brought out the bats for the second straight outing on Thursday. Just a day after belting out 13 hits in a 12-4 rout of winless Barre (Vt.) Community, CALL had eight hits against Fairfield American. Four of those knocks were for extra bases, including a three-run homer from Jake Glod in the second inning and Wrightâ€™s dinger in the fifth.
Although often wild, Hanuschak managed to keep Fairfield hitless in his starting role. He had seven walks, two hit batsmen and six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. Fairfield went into the game with a team batting average of .460.
â€śI just tried to go out there and work my hardest,â€ť Hanuschak said. â€śI definitely wasnâ€™t expecting to no-hit them. They are a great team there.â€ť
Belisle felt his aceâ€™s off-speed pitches are what made the difference.
â€śI think the curveball early kept them off balance,â€ť he said. â€śMax didnâ€™t mean to hit people on purpose (Fairfieldâ€™s Connor Lynch was the victim of both his hit batsmen). He was wild high, but Max is always wild high. It does keep them off balance, but I think he was effective because of his off-speed curve. Heâ€™s got a tremendous one, so they canâ€™t key on that fastball.â€ť
Cumberland American, which was blanked 3-0 by Fairfield American (3-2) during pool play on Tuesday where it managed only two hits, got things going early in the batterâ€™s box yesterday. CALL took a 1-0 lead in the first with Hanuschakâ€™s fielderâ€™s choice bring home Ryan McCormick, who led off the inning with a single.
Cumberland American jacked that advantage to 4-1 in the second, powered by Goldâ€™s three RBI homer. CALL did all its damage in the inning with two outs. Tom Faltus drew a walk off starter Eddie Schwartz. McCormick followed with a double that hit the top of the fence in left-center. Glod then responded by taking a 1-0 pitch over the centerfield fence.
â€śJake, with that big homer, relaxed the team,â€ť Belisle said. â€śThat was big after that one that McCormick hit, hit the top of the fence. For Jacob to come back with that one, that was huge.â€ť
Cumberland American scored four more times in the top of the fifth to take an 8-1 lead. Nine players made it to the batterâ€™s box. The inning was highlighted by a run-scoring double from Hanuschak and Wrightâ€™s two-run shot.
Then it was time for Fairfield American to mount it comeback. The Connecticut squad scored three runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth, before CALL and Wright were finally able to halt their bid.