By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Eastern baseball program was one of the final four Class L teams that made it to the final week of the scholastic season.
And that’s all Eastern head coach Mike Giovinazzo asked of his team.
One more win and the Lancers would be in the state championship tilt for the third time in program history as the top ranked squad in all the Class L bracket disposed of No. 9 East Haven 6-1 in a quarterfinal encounter from Muzzy Field in Bristol on Saturday, June 4.
The victory was the first ever win over East Haven for the Lancers (21-2) as Eastern last fell to the squad on June 6, 1987 by a 3-2 final from Palmer Field in Middletown during quarterfinal action.
With East Lyme’s 12-0 blanking of Watertown that same day, it set up an Eastern showdown against the fourth ranked squad in the bracket from a neutral site.
All-time, the Lancers are 2-0 against East Lyme – setting up a rematch from the 1986 Class L championship game (Eastern won 11-7) while last playing the squad on May 28, 2013 (the Lancers wiped out the squad 12-0 during state tournament play).
Win number 21 was also a program record as the Lancers continued to storm to the state championship showdown.
East Lyme was 19-5 heading into the semifinal tilt, finishing the regular season on a 16-0 kick.
Against East Haven, Eastern chucker Nate Carney (9-0) cruised from the start, only really getting into trouble in the third frame – giving up one run off three hits.
Overall, the Yellowjackets collected just seven hits while striking out eight times against the crafty Carney.
Carney did not allow a walk and two double-play balls helped him out of a couple tricky spots during game play.
“Once again, he sets the tone,” said Bristol Eastern coach Mike Giovinazzo of Carney. “He throws strikes, he works fast, he keeps his defense on its toes. And you know as an offense, if you get him a few runs, he gets even tougher.”
On the hitting front, batter one-through-nine all did something for the Lancers, a broken record over the outstanding season.
Nate Hickey was 2-of-2 with two walks and two runs scored while Greg Lozier snuck out an infield hit and notched a run.
Adrian James earned a walk while Zach Marquis went 1-for-3 with a critical three-base hit and collected two RBI.
Jake Violette added an RBI single and scored a run off a little old time baseball while Carney also picked up a base-on-balls.
Cory Fradette jammed a triple to centerfield, Brian McPhee slipped in an infield bunt while pinch-hitter Gary Gagnier drilled an sacrifice fly to round out the offense.
“I told you time and time again, it’s a tough line-up,” said Giovinazzo of the Eastern offense. “When one guy doesn’t get you, somebody else is going to.”
Jake Ferrara had two hits for the Yellowjackets while starting pitcher Nick Kraszewski (0-2) who had only thrown a handful of innings this season, was tagged for five runs and bounced after three innings of work, drawing a tough loss.
Through three rounds of statement play, the Lancers outscored the competition 22-2 and is clearly the squad to beat in all of Class L.
Carney was cruising from the start, striking out the first four batters he faced as Eastern got to work early in the first inning, never looking back.
Hickey started it off by beating out an infield hit to second and Lozier followed suit.
But off his hit to short, Hickey sprinted all the way to third and when Lozier stole second, runners were on second and third with no outs on the scoreboard.
James struck out and when Marquis grounded out to short, Hickey came home on the play as the RBI tally made it a 1-0 push in Eastern’s favor.
During Violette’s at-bat, Kraszewski sailed a ball all the way to the back-stop behind home plate and Lozier was looking the score from third.
The ball hit the backstop so hard that it bounced away quickly and the catcher made an outstanding toss to the plate.
The throw to Kraszewski, covering home, appeared in time to get Lozier at but the pitcher dropped the ball and Lozier was called safe – making it a 2-0 contest after one completed frame.
“I’ll tell you something, the speed at the top of our line-up is really a factor for our team,” said Giovinazzo. “What Hickey and Lozier do on the bases, and Adrian [James] as well, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Both squads went quietly in the second inning but in the top of the third, East Haven made its move to get on the board.
Tyler Spano and Tristian Punzo opened the stanza with back-to-back singles to put two on.
After a wild pitch advanced the runners, Ryan Spano unleashed a deep infield hit to short, no play could be made, and East Haven scored to make it a 2-1 contest.
But Loda struck out for the second time and off a groundout by Kraszewski, the Yellowjackets cut the deficit to 2-1.
Starting the Lancers’ portion of the third, Hickey drew a four-pitch walk and the home team was quickly at it again.
With two outs and Hickey at second, Marquis slammed a triple to the gap in center – scoring the runner and making it a 3-1 contest.
“Zach’s been really been clutch for us the last couple of weeks,” said Giovinazzo. “He had a little slump in the middle of the year but he worked himself out of it and right now, he’s a pretty dangerous hitter.”
Violette then dropped an RBI single into right as Marquis scored and made it a 4-1 game.
Later, Violette advanced to third via a wild pitch and a passed ball and when Carney drew a walk, runners were on the corners.
And then tomfoolery time was quickly upon the game.
Midway through the count on Fradette, Carney broke from first – as it appeared the runner was attempting to steal second – but quickly stopped dead in his tracks, halfway from the bag at second.
As the play unfolded, Violette broke for home, stealing the plate during the confusion in the infield, and suddenly the lead grew to 5-1 in the Lancers’ favor.
“You’ve got to try things in the tournament,” said Giovinazzo. “You’re playing teams that you’ve never played before so they’re not familiar with your style. It’s not like when you’re playing in your league and everybody knows your tricks. When you’re playing teams in the tournament, you’ve got to pull out everything.”
A beautiful 4-3 double play, which was fueled all by Eastern’s Evan McGinley at second base, did-in East Haven in the fourth. In the bottom of the tilt, the Lancers loaded the bases up.
With East Haven reliever Ryan Spano in the contest, McPhee dropped down a one-out infield bunt and Hickey walked for the second time on the day to put two on.
Lozier grounded out to third base – advancing the runners – and James walked to load things up.
But off another attempt at small ball and tomfoolery, McPhee committed to home plate but was tagged out. After four completed stanzas, Eastern was still in front by four.
And then in the bottom of the sixth, Eastern tacked on another insurance run.
It was Fradette’s turn to drop a triple to the gap in center and when pinch-hitter Gary Gagnier sent a fly-ball to left for an out, the runner scampered home to make it a 6-1 lead in the Lancers’ favor.
Again, Eastern turned another double play to open the seventh and East Haven was quickly down to its final out of the afternoon.
One additional strikeout later, Carney came away with another win and Eastern was off to the semifinal round with a 6-1 win in hand over East Haven.
“Now, everyone is pretty much in the same spot of the rotation with their pitchers so you know, if you’re number two is good enough as their number two, you’re going to have a pretty good chance (at victory),” said Gioviazzo. “And we like our number two [Tyler Troth].”