FAIRFIELD — Based just on experience, John Natoli should be considered the No. 3 pitcher in the Fairfield Warde starting rotation.
Then came Tuesday’s effort against Staples, which led Mustangs coach Mark Caron to essentially ask, what’s in a number?
Natoli matched scoreless innings with the Wreckers’ Ian Burns, not giving up a hit until Ben Casparius led off the top of the seventh with a double.
Casparius was left stranded, and it seemed that two deserving pitchers would depart with no-decisions as the game went into extra innings.
But Xavier Espinel drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the seventh, and with runners on the corners and one out, Zach Weinstein, the No. 9 hitter, singled through the right side to give the Mustangs a dramatic 1-0 win.
Natoli was sensational, allowing just the one hit, striking out 11 and walking one.
“Everything was on,” said Natoli (2-0), a junior making just his second start of the season. “I was just hitting my spots. I was in a rhythm. I couldn’t wait to play today. This was a big game.”
Warde (7-0), the defending FCIAC champion, remained the league’s last unbeaten team, and the victory over Staples (4-2), the reigning regular season champion, along with a non-league victory at Montville are the biggest to date.
“Both pitchers had their stuff going today,” Caron said. “Our guy, John, not many people in the league know about him. He has really worked hard.”
Caron said last year Natoli’s fastball topped out at about 75 miles per hour. Now it is up to 83 or 84, with pinpoint location.
“My three starters are as good as any in the league,” Caron said. “We know we are always going to be in the game.”
Reece Maniscalco and Nick Nardone at the top of the rotation are a big reason the Mustangs were considered, along with the Wreckers, the preseason favorites. The emergence of Natoli has been a huge benefit as the Mustangs continue to work on being a more potent team on a consistent basis.
“We don’t really have a 1, 2 and 3,” Caron said. “I think we have three big guys who would be considered 1s on a lot of teams. I don’t want to pigeonhole (Natoli). If we had a big game I don’t know who I’d throw.”
The Mustangs managed just five hits against Burns, who struck out eight and walked four, but Weinstein delivered the most important one.
“The pitch before he threw a fastball away and I fouled it off,” Weinstein said. “I was a little late on it and he came back with a 1-2 curveball and I punched it out to rightfield, and that’s all I needed to do. We had to pick up John Natoli.”
Warde had placed runners on third three times, one inning getting two in scoring position. Burns ended each inning with strikeouts.
“Two good pitchers who threw the ball well,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said. “They got the big hit in the bottom of the seventh. Everybody had opportunities to do things to help us win today. They made more plays, they played smarter, they won the game.”
Caron challenged his team this week. There are three games against contenders in a 72-hour span. Up next is Darien on Wednesday, followed by New Canaan.
“Our goal this week was to go 2-1,” Caron said. “We passed our first test. Now onto Darien and see what we can do from here.”