By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The transformation of the Bristol Central baseball team has been night and day and now at the end of the regular season, it’s state tournament time for the Rams.
No one was even thinking such thoughts nine or 10 games into the campaign.
And this is the time of the season Central coach Bunty Ray and his squad craves – a stretch that usually sees Central make their playoff run and improves its tournament standing.
Only this time around, the Rams used that slate of games to qualify for the states and the team has done it with zest, smarts, and a willing determination to turn the season around at any cost.
“We’ve played eleven games in 14 days, something like that,” said Ray. “This is the time you think you’re going to get tired but we weren’t tired at that point. I just think we’re playing with great energy, picking each other up. “
“I think the wins we’re getting, we’re working for.”
There’s no superstar on this team and if you try to look for one, you’re not going to find him.
But as a group, the team knows what to do, where the ball should go and how to play defense the right way.
The team thing is working and if the unit is playing to its potential, this team has every chance to pick up victories – no matter what the talent level is.
“We are what we are,” said Ray. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re a powerful offensive team. We have fallen into our roles, we’re using our bench, our pitchers are doing their jobs and we’re just finding ways to win.”
There’s no true big gun on this squad offensively and don’t be fooled by Matt Heffernan’s .500 batting average (he’s 1-of-2).
But the grouping of Noah Cruz, Nick Sassu, and Jerry LaPenta are all batting in the .260’s and that unit has been solidifying the offense and in turn, a bit of a win streak was put together by the Rams.
Yes, the .214 team batting average isn’t anything to write home about but Central has been finding all sorts of ways to generate victories.
Six straight wins have led the Rams to a 10-9 ledger and those victories have come in all shapes and sizes.
From a 12-8 slugfest victory over Platt on May 11, to a 4-0 shutout of Bulkeley on May 13 to two wins against Middletown in a stretch of just four days, it was mission accomplished by the locals in terms of playoff qualification.
“We’re 2-7 and we come back to be 9-9, you know, we just flipped the schedule,” said Ray. “We were 2-7 and now we’re 7-2 and that’s basically what it came down to.”
There was no panic in this squad, even after that mind-boggling 2-7 start.
That’s because the defense has taken a step forward and that team ERA has been falling along with it.
Both Jaeden Rasmus (4-4) and Brad Burney (1-2) carry losing records but with ERAs of 2.38 apiece, when Central can hit the ball, the Rams win and those two pitchers come away with wins.
And when Rasmus starts and Burney comes in for relief, the closer has five saves to his name and the combination has been working brilliantly.
Cruz (1-0, 2.02 ERA) has been an amazing edition to the bullpen staff and veteran hand Jerry LaPenta (4-2) is always up to the challenge.
“I have to give these kids a lot of credit,” said Ray. “And we didn’t hold back either. Everybody said [Central] is pressing. We didn’t go that route. We drove them in practice even harder and that’s what it came down to. We’d just drive the kids and they’d respond.”
“I have to give this team a lot of credit. There are a lot of kids that would fold. They didn’t. They just kept coming and that’s a tribute to them.”
And with state tournament implications on the line, Central found ways to win games and play for something bigger every day.
“They have something that they’re playing for,” said Ray. “They wanted to make the tournament and now I think they’re saying to themselves ‘you know what, we’re pretty good and we can give somebody fits.’”
Sure, there’s no stud.
Yes, there’s a lack of offensive punch.
But when this group comes to the field, they bring their hard hats, punch the time card, and get right to work and usually, the squad gives itself a real chance to win it.
“Are we flashy? That’s not Matt Blandino out there but you know what, those are pretty good pitchers,” said Ray of his staff. “Are those the guys I’ve had in the past, no. [My pitchers] are character guys. Offensively, I wish I had a couple guys I’ve had in the past but I’ve got what I’ve got and you know what, we’re going to go, we’re going to find ways, we’re going to manufacture.”
By MICHAEL LETENDRE