MIDDLETOWN – Sometimes the best move is to make no move at all.
That was Staples High School baseball coach Jack McFarland’s decision midway through today’s Class LL championship game against Amity.
And doing nothing worked perfectly.
Thanks to that strategy, McFarland and the Wreckers won the program’s second state title.
Winning pitcher Chad Knight went the distance and added a tie-breaking two-run homer, while Ben Casparius collected three hits as the Wreckers defeated four-time defending champion Amity, 5-1, at Palmer Field.
Were it not for a critical decision in the fourth inning, who knows how this game would have played out. McFarland left a struggling Knight in the game after three straight walks, and the sophomore responded by retiring 11 of the final 14 batters he faced.
But McFarland can’t take all the credit for the decision. He had help.
“Chad was losing it and I went out there planning to take him out,” McFarland said. “But he said to me, ‘Coach, you are not taking me out.’ When I heard him say that, well, it was tough to pull the trigger.”
The game was scoreless heading to the fourth, and after Knight had escaped a second-inning jam he retired the first batter in the bottom of the fourth. But he followed that with walks to Amity’s Jack Nolan, losing pitcher and West Point-bound Max Scheps, and Rohan Patel to load the bases.
These weren’t just-miss pitches, either. Knight was wild high on most of his offerings, normally a sign of fatigue. That, plus the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” pitching plan McFarland had mapped out for the day, led the Wreckers’ coach to the mound with every intention of calling in a relief pitcher.
“(McFarland) asked me if I was OK and he looked like he wanted to take me out,” Knight said. “I said there is no way you’re taking me out of this game. This is my game.”
The next batter, Adam Hurwitz, hit a slow grounder to second for the second out but Nolan scored, giving the No. 1-seeded Spartans (25-3) the lead. The Spartans, who defeated Staples in the Class LL final two years ago, would collect three harmless singles the rest of the way.
“We thought we were one more hit or walk away from knocking him out of the game,” Amity coach Sal Coppola said. “One hit and it’s two runs and a whole different ballgame. But give the kid credit. He bounced back and made the pitches.”
Knight did more than that. In the top of the fifth, after 11th-seed Staples (18-8) tied it on a single by Harry Azadian and Chris Drbal’s triple, Knight stepped to the plate. He blasted a Scheps fastball over the 400-foot sign in dead centerfield for a 3-1 lead.
That hit seemed to make McFarland’s decision to keep Knight in the game that much more crucial, although the coach said afterwards that had he gone to a new pitcher, Knight would have remained in the game at second base.
Nevertheless, it was an impressive recovery for a sophomore who was struggling mightily on the mound in a state championship game.
“Chad was great,” said Casparius, the Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year. Casparius, who will pitch at the University of North Carolina next year unless his position in next week’s MLB draft is too good to turn down, pitched a complete game against Ridgefield in the semifinals on Wednesday. He was unavailable to pitch today.
“We just wanted Chad to keep us in the game,” Casparius added. “But he couldn’t have done any better than he did. And that was a clutch at-bat, too. What a shot.”
After giving up a pair of one-out singles to Amity in the bottom of the fifth, Knight saw McFarland heading to the mound again. The conversation was similar to the one they had an inning earlier, with the same result. McFarland did nothing. And Knight retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced, allowing only Colin Beaulieu’s bunt single in the seventh.
“Coach told me to just keep doing what I had been doing all year,” Knight said. “Having the two-run lead was a confidence booster and I just took a deep breath and was ready to go.”
The Wreckers added two runs in the top of the seventh. After Drbal’s second hit, Casparius lined a run-scoring double to right-center for the fourth run. Two batters later Max Popken delivered an RBI single that knocked Scheps out of the game.
The celebration, resembling the 1986 Mets’ pile-on at Shea Stadium, then took place after Knight got Teddy Hague to line to centerfield for the final out.
“After you look at the teams we beat in the tournament, there is no question that we are the number one team in the state,” McFarland said. The Wreckers beat top seven seeds in their final four games.
The win ended one of the most impressive baseball streaks in state history. Amity, which defeated Staples, 4-0 back, on April 15, had won 10 games in a row and went into the game confident the title streak would reach five.
But Knight — with a little assist from his coach — made sure it wasn’t going to happen.
“I’m speechless right now,” Knight said. “We wanted to win this so bad, and we wanted to do it against Amity. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
NOTES: Staples was the highest seed the Spartans faced in the tournament, beating 32, 17, 25 and 20 before Saturday. After beating No. 22 Cheshire, Staples knocked off No. 6 Wilton, No. 3 Westhill and 7 Ridgefield before the final. … Staples was making its fourth appearance in a state championship game. The Wreckers won in 2001 and were runners-up in 1979 and 2015.