Head coach Jim Chaves knew something was amiss the moment the St. Joseph baseball team took the field for Wednesday’s season-opener against New Canaan.
Maybe it was the pressure of being one of the favorites to win the FCIAC title, or perhaps it was the complacency that comes with losing just three contributing starters from last year’s 21-4 team.
Whatever it was allowed the young Rams to flood the bases with scoring chances over the first six innings before taking a one-run lead into the bottom of the sixth.
“I know us. We were a little tense in here the first three innings and I’m not sure why,” said Chaves, whose team went to the FCIAC semifinals and the state quarterfinals last season.
“I think it was just because it was opening day and they were just excited to be out there.”
The Cadets were even more excited to escape with a victory, pushing across three runs in the bottom of the sixth to post a 7-5 victory in a mistake-filled affair at St. Joseph’s Shea Stadium.
Brett Olayos was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to bring in the tying run and leadoff batter Matt Batten gave the Cadets a two-run lead with a two-run single to center field.
Shortstop and No. 2 starter Jason Holcomb came on in relief of ace right-hander John Amoroso in the sixth, and after allowing the Rams to take a 5-4 lead with three runs in the top of the frame, picked up the save by pitching a scoreless seventh.
“It’s good the get the first one out of the way,” Chaves said. “Early in the game everyone was pumped up, the adrenaline was flowing. It just took us a while to settle into the game.”
With a ton of veteran experience, it ended up being a first-year starter in Batten who delivered the game-winning hit.
“I think he’s a great player and I’m expecting him to do real good things for us the next few years,” Chaves said. “That was a huge at-bat. That just shows you what type of a player he is. We want him up in those situations and he came up big-time for us right there.”
New Canaan had plenty of chances to steal a big opening-day victory, but its youth and inexperience proved too much to overcome.
The Rams loaded the bases twice over the first two innings against Amoroso but failed to score. Amoroso, who went 7-1 as a junior, struck out the final two batters to escape the jam in the first then wiggled his way out of the second with another big one-out strikeout.
Amoroso, who threw 57 pitches over the first two innings and 112 in five, also avoided damage after allowing a leadoff double by standout third baseman Willie Burger in the third.
New Canaan left 11 men on base.
“After the first three innings I turned to my assistant and said we’re lucky we’re not down 8-0,” Chaves said. “We gave them plenty of opportunities to score, but fortunate for us we had a senior on the mound who is a captain and really didn’t get rattled.”
With three juniors, three sophomores and one freshman in the starting lineup, New Canaan head coach Mitch Hoffman knows there’s going to be a learning curve.“
Our kids did better toward the later innings when they got more comfortable,” he said. “But you’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities when you have them. You can’t leave the bases loaded like that.”
New Canaan also had a tough time holding the lead in relief of junior right-hander Andrew Casali, the defacto ace and younger brother of former New Canaan star Curtis Casali, now playing rookie ball in the Detroit Tigers minor league system.
Casali allowed just four hits and four runs (two earned) over the first five innings with two strikeouts and two walks.
However, with Casali’s pitch count rising to the mid-80’s, Hoffman gave the ball to senior right-hander Michael Keshin with the Rams leading 5-4.
Keshin proceeded to walk the only three batters he faced in the bottom of the sixth to load the bases. Sophomore righty JR Anderson hit Olayos with the second pitch to force in the tying run and Batten drilled a 1-1 fastball up the middle to make it 7-5.
“It’s a long year. It’s the beginning of the year and I don’t need my guy (Casali) hurt,” Hoffman said. “He was done. I tried to bring in a senior and he just didn’t get it done.”
New Canaan broke through with two runs in the fourth to take a 2-0 lead on an RBI-single by Doug Reily and a sacrifice fly by Casali. Freshman Alex Lapolice, who reached base in three of four plate appearances, started things off with a single to right and St. Joseph helped with an error on a sacrifice bunt.
The Cadets responded with two runs in the bottom of the fourth on a leadoff double by Mark Hirschbeck (2-for-3), a walk by St. John’s-bound senior catcher Joe Burns and a two-run triple by Holcomb.
New Canaan loaded the bases again in the fifth but failed to score after the Cadets foiled a suicide squeeze attempt with one out, getting Dan Rajkowski to swing through a great curveball by Amoroso.
St. Joseph made it 4-2 with two runs in the fifth, scoring without the benefit of a hit on two errors, a hit batter and a sacrifice fly by Hirschbeck.
Amoroso got the first two batters in the sixth before Casali laced a sharp single to left. Holcomb came to the mound and walked the next two batters to load the bases and left-fielder Nick Cassione, who entered the game in the fourth, tied the game 4-4 with a two-run single to right. The third run came home on a wild pitch.
But everything New Canaan did right in the top of the sixth went sour in the bottom of the frame.
“They’re a veteran team and they’re tough,” Hoffman said of St. Joseph. “You have to give them credit.”
Despite the loss, the Rams gained some much-needed confidence knowing it could play on the same field with a veteran team like St. Joseph.
“I know we can compete. Now I just have to convince them that they can,” Hoffman said. “Everyone’s got us all hyped up, but we lost a lot of guys. One thing I like about the hype is maybe New Canaan baseball’s got a little thing coming. But we’re young, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”