By MICHAEL LETENDRE
SOUTH WINDSOR – The Manchester Twilight League championship game between the Bristol Knights and East Hartford Angels was like watching two champion chess masters go to work.
And it truly was like a human game of chess with plenty of moves, costly mistakes, counters and eventually, a checkmate.
But in the end, it was a check and mate for the Bristol Knights – the newly minted 2014 Manchester Twilight League Champions – off a 4-3 win over the Angels on Friday night, Aug. 15 from Rotary Field in South Windsor.
It was certainly a worthy final contest for the league and either team could have brought the championship hardware home.
In this case, the Knights – the No. 6 seed in the league tournament – battled back from a 1-0 series deficit against No. 1 East Hartford, the toast of the regular season.
And in this one, the championship clinching victory for Bristol, the Knights emptied the tank, put all the pieces into play, and showed all the guts in the world as the squad from the Mum City almost willed their way to the championship trophy.
“It’s unbelievable how this team has persevered,” said Bristol coach Brian LaRochelle.
The Knights showed heart – down 3-1 in the contest – to make its comeback and scored three fifth inning runs to topple East Hartford and pitcher Brendan Wyman – one of the best chuckers the league had to offer.
And once those runs were tallied, it was about defense as the Angels just tallied two hits and a walk over the final three innings of play.
That’s a credit to the squad and Bristol pitcher Chris McGrath (three runs, 10 hits, 5 Ks, 2 BB) who went the distance and didn’t let the pressure faze him.
“He was pitching on two days rest,” said LaRochelle of McGraph. “He’s thrown 14 or 15 innings over the course in three, four days. He was not firing his usual fastball and he didn’t have command of his curveball until the middle innings but he did just enough to hang around. He could have hung his head after I let those couple (passed) balls get by me (at catcher). He could have hung his head after they got a couple of two-strike hits on good pitcher’s pitches in the first couple innings but he didn’t.”
“He displayed an awful lot of maturity.”
And then there was the play of Bristol veteran Ricky Barrett, who was simply sensational on both sides of the ball.
His glove at shortstop stopped several balls from becoming hits while at the plate, Barrett was a cool 3-for-3 with a double, a walk, and two RBI.
If there was an MVP award, Barrett deserved it for his outstanding tournament play.
“Hats off to Rick Barrett,” said Larochelle. “I’ve never seen anybody throw together a 35-game season the way he just did. He played out of his mind.”
Also in the championship tilt, Eddie Dickman came through big with a 2-for-4 performance with a double and a stolen base while LaRochelle had a hit in the Knights’ six-hit attack.
After allowing LaRochelle’s single in the first frame, Wyman (6 hits, 5 Ks, 2 BBs) retired 11 of the next 13 batters he faced before the game fell apart for the East Hartford outfit.
Wyman was pretty reliable on the night but the defense behind him fell apart a bit and Wyman couldn’t keep up once the Knights took the lead for good.
“They decided to save their ace for game three,” said LaRochelle of Wyman. “And he’s a guy who’s throws the majority of their innings this year. He’s really their tough pitcher. He’s their guy who can strike guys out, a guy who chewed up 80 or 90 innings, whatever it was. They saved him for day three (for the final game).”
Mike D’Antonio had two hits for the Angels while Mike Dean went 3-for-3 in the losing effort.
Dickman started it all off with a blazing double to right to open the first and Ortiz-Rivera moved him over off a grounder to second base.
And he easily scored off a Barrett RBI single to centerfield as Bristol ramped up a quick 1-0 lead.
Later, Brian LaRochelle joined Barrett on the base paths as he dropped a bloop single near the foul in in left field.
But Mike Scanlon popped out foul to end the inning as the Knights drew first blood in the game and led by a run.
In the bottom of the first, D’Antonio poked out a one single up the gut but McGraph worked his way out of the jam as East Hartford failed to score and trailed 1-0 after one completed frame of action.
But in the second inning, the Angels missed a big opportunity to get on the board.
Dean and Dan Scully flipped out back-to-back singles to get two on with no one out and the Angels were looking to score.
However, Ron Emanuelson hit into a 4-6-3 double play and Ryan Gott hit a comebacker to McGraph as the Knights escaped without giving up a run as East Hartford still trailed 1-0.
Barrett drew a two-out walk in the third but went nowhere while East Hartford’s Dean Denovellis got on board via base-on-balls and advance to second of a passed ball.
T.J. Difiore smacked a single to center to put runners on the corners and Denovellis scored when D’Antonio launched a base hit to center, tying it up at 1-1.
But even with runners at first and second, the Bristol defense came through.
McGraph picked up a strikeout and Barrett – playing his usual best at shortstop – made a another nice stop and throw, to get Jon Kuschman out at first, as the game remained a 1-1 affair.
Bristol’s fourth was rather quiet, save a two-out walk to Justin Tokarz as the tied game remained in effect.
The Angels took the lead in the bottom of the fourth and went ahead in the fray by a 2-1 push.
Mike Dean singled to get on and pinch runner Travis Mistretta moved to third off a grounder by Scully.
A passed ball plated Mistretta and later, Gott slipped a double into right, advanced to third off an infield hit to deep second base by Jackson Mistretta.
Again, a passed ball that got by LaRochelle led to a run as Gott scored and after four innings of work, the Angels zipped up a 3-1 lead.
Off a strikeout on Scott Dickens, Wyman had retired 11 of his last 13 batters but Dickman was about to break that streak.
Dickman launched a base hit though the middle and the Knights had the tying run at home plate.
Ortiz-Rivera struck out for out number two but a rally was about to take place by the Knights.
With Dickman at second off a stolen base, Barrett smoked a double deep to left as the lead runner scored and Bristol cut the deficit to 3-2.
Oakes then sent a grounder to third but Gott threw the ball away to first as Barrett scored to knot things up at 3-3.
With Oakes moving to third via a passed ball, LaRochelle sent a dribbler to first base and Wyman had to cover the bag.
As LaRochelle got to the bag, Wyman dropped the ball off the throw and Oakes scored as the Knights once again seized the lead, this time at 4-3 midway through the fifth.
In the bottom of the fifth, Travis Mistretta scratched out an infield single and he advanced to second off a steal the Knights had anticipated.
But Bristol threw the ball away at the lead bag.
It didn’t matter in the end as Kuschman grounded out to short as Bristol’s one-run cushion stayed intact going into the sixth stanza.
Bristol went down in order while Dean looped a base hit to short right and the tying run was on for the Angels to open its portion of the sixth.
But after three quick Bristol putouts, East Hartford would soon be down to its final three outs of the 2014 season.
And the squad needed to score at least once to keep its season alive and force extra innings.
But Bristol tried to pad the lead in the top of the seventh as Barrett beat out a two-out infield hit to keep the inning alive.
Oakes struck out to end Bristol’s seventh and the pressure was on the Angels to produce.
And that final run East Hartford needed to tie up the game simply never materialized as the Knights celebrated their new title in the 4-3 victory.
“The defense wouldn’t allow it,” said LaRochelle of a game tying Angels’ run to cross the plate. “Rick played out of his mind defensively (and) McGraph was unbelievable.”
Comments? Email mletendre@BristolObserver. com.
By MICHAEL LETENDRE