By MICHAEL LETENDRE
The conclusion of the Connecticut Twilight League regular season is in sight and the back-to-back defending champions, the Bristol Knights, are looking to keep its momentum going into the month of August.
At 19-4, the Knights – the best team in the league – are four games in front of the second place squad, the Elmer’s Silver Bullets, in the Central division and are well positioned for another deep run in the playoffs.
And a shot at a third straight CTL championship is certainly an obtainable goal in 2016.
“The Bristol Knights Twilight baseball team controls its own destiny heading into the Connecticut Twilight League playoffs,” said player, coach and Knights General Manager Scott Dickens. “One more win and we lock down first place in the Central Division, a bye in the playoffs, and home-field advantage throughout them.”
And a 7-2 victory over the Chicago Sam’s Orioles on Friday, July 22, the Knights earned that top finish and will have a first round bye to start tournament play.
With only three regular season games remaining, the Knights are starting to get ready for a lengthy playoff push and are shooting for a third league title in as many years.
The tournament for the CTL starts on Monday, Aug. 8 but the Knights will not be in action that night, thanks to the first place finish in the league.
After piecing together an amazing 14-game winning streak from mid-May until the beginning of July, the squad from Bristol put some real distance between it and Elmer’s to maintain first place for most of the campaign.
In the Eastern Division, the squads are in a much closer battle for first place and at press time, first place was still hanging in the balance.
The Willimantic Ridges, at 11-9-1, enjoyed a one-and-a-half game edge over the Moodus Nationals and were two-and-a-half games in front of the pesky Glastonbury Pirates to end last week.
In fact, the top three teams in the Central carried a better record than the Eastern Division leaders.
The Knights – after an 0-2 start – recently strung together 14 wins from mid-May until the beginning of July and have won 19 of 21 games since that slow start.
Individually for Bristol, some players are having standout seasons.
The Knights are being led at the plate by 14-year veteran catcher and former Bristol Eastern standout, Ed Dickman.
As of a week or two ago, Dickman was carrying a .387 batting average to go along with nine RBI, and six runs scored.
But going into the home-and-home series against the Orioles, Dickman ramped those numbers up to a .415 aver-age with 13 RBI, eight runs, and a homer to his name.
Dickman was certainly critical to much of the team’s success in the squad’s recent 14-game winning streak and has been a driving force to help the Knights secure that number one overall tournament seed.
Fourth year outfielder Julio Ortiz-Rivera, a speedster on the bath-paths and a valuable member of the Knights’ outfield, is also having a great year, batting .345 with eight stolen bases, seven RBI, and five runs scored.
Marco Ross, at the plate, is having a solid season – carrying an average around .340 as the Knights have scored the second most runs in the league this year (118 runs, 5.4 runs-per-game).
The Knights’ pitching has been a staple of the program’s resurgence as the CTL’s top team as the squad’s defense as a whole has been one of the biggest factors to their postseason success.
The team currently carries a 1.24 ERA, with only 28 earned runs and 134 strikeouts in 152 1/3 innings pitched.
Individually, the team has been led by crafty lefty Chris McGrath and Ross, a sidearm righty and a Bristol pitching staple.
McGrath is 5-1 on the season, while pitching 35 1/3 innings, carrying a tremendous 0.59 ERA while striking out 34 overall.
Ross is a neat 5-1 and has been extremely effective on the mound this year as well.
His ERA of 0.25 is one of the league’s best marks to go along with 30 strikeouts and three earned runs.
Back to the defense of the Knights’ core group has displayed top-notched play all season long, anchored in the infield by five-year veteran Rick Barrett at shortstop and third base, Dickman behind the plate, and the trio of Kyle Lentini, Ortiz-Rivera, and Steve Clout – another standout of Bristol Eastern days gone by – in the outfield.
The Knights hosted their final Muzzy Field games of the season on July 13, playing the Loco Perro Expos and the always very tough Brickhouse Indians – sweeping the pair in Bristol that moved the squad to 17-3 overall.
Both Bristol pitchers only struck out two batters apiece but each trusted the fantastic Knights’ defense to make plays which they did.
Nick DiTaranto pitched an effective game, throwing a complete contest that included only one earned run.
Dickman led the team, going 2-for-4 with two RBI, while Rick Barrett was 2-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored and Phil Rothkugel went 1-for-2 with a double, walk, and two runs.
McGrath shut down the Indians in game two, throwing six innings without yielding an earned run.
At the plate in game two, the Knights were led by Barrett (2-for-4, run, 3 RBI, SB), Dickman (2-for-2, 2 BB, run, 2 RBI, 2 SB), and Dan Nunes (1 for 1, double, 2 BB, 2 Runs, 2 SB).
And to finish out that week, Bristol played the first game of the inaugural Connecticut Twilight League Summer Classic on the turf field of Central Connecticut State University on Saturday, July 16, losing heartbreaker to Glastonbury by a 6-5 final.
The event at CCSU had all 10 teams in the CTL play five games back-to-back as the best talent in the league was on display.
Of course, the mini-tournament was initially booked for the brand new Dunkin’ Donuts Park in downtown Hartford, the “future” home of the Yard Goats but tomfoolery kept the stadium from being completed and the CTL relocated the classic to New Britain, another beautiful location.
The Knights look to close out the last four games remaining in the regular in the the next week or so.
After tangling with the Orioles from Clem J. Roy Field at Bristol Eastern on Friday, July 22, the Knights traveled to Portland on Monday, July 25 to finish off the back-to-back games with Chicago.
And the Knights then close out the regular season facing the Willimantic Ridges at Rotary Field in South Windsor at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 29 and compete against Elmer’s the following Tuesday (on Aug. 2, which is still to be determined) in a make-up affair.
Starting the week of Aug. 8, the playoffs will commence and the Knights makes its push for three championships in a row in the Connecticut Twilight League and the fifth league championship overall in Bristol’s 14-year team history – the most of any squad currently playing.