Baseball

Extra-Base Hits: Pitching Depth Ridgefield’s Unsung Commodity

Ridgefield has flourished behind the pitching depth of (from left) Michael Heller, Alex Price and Jake Artzt. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Ridgefield coach Paul Fabbri came into this season almost as curious about his team as its fans. The Tigers reached the league final a year ago, then made a run to the Class LL semifinals before losing to eventual champion Staples.

Two-thirds of the starting lineup graduated. Most notable was Collin Lowe, who along with Alex Price gave the Tigers as good a 1-2 pitching punch as there was in the state.

Third baseman Pete Columbia and shortstop Matt Stamatis have provided veteran leadership at the top of the order, along with catcher Ben Cohen.

Most unsettled was the pitching. Price, one of the state’s best pitchers, was a given. A dominant pitcher can get enough wins to bring a team to the brink of a state playoff berth and put it in a good position to qualify for the league tournament. But depth is needed to get to the next step.

So if you want to account for the reasons the Tigers are 9-3 and a half game behind Darien for the best record in the FCIAC, one key factor has been the band we can refer to as the Non-Prices, the rest of the staff. They are a combined 5-2 and have contributed to a 1.58 team earned run average. That is a championship-caliber statistic, though as we will see for Ridgefield it comes with an asterisk.

“The pitching staff was questionable; I’m really pleased with where we are right now,” Fabbri said.

Price has lived up to expectations: he is 4-1 with a 1.35 ERA. He starts on Mondays and sets the tone for the week. Next up has been Jake Artzt, who has developed into one of the better No. 2 starters in the league. He is 2-1 with a 0.36 earned run average. He shut out Stamford on a one-hitter and was one out away from a nine-inning win over Greenwich before hitting his pitch-count limit.

“Artzt was really a revelation for us,” Fabbri said. “He was a transfer last year. He was a guy who didn’t give up an earned run last year but it was really in mop-up duty. We ran him out there (in a loss) against Amity and his velocity was pretty good, and he was victimized by our bugaboo in our losses, and that is defense, but went three strong innings. It was really a godsend to have him step up in that spot to be our No. 2 guy.”

Matt DeLuca, a sophomore, does not have a decision but has a 0.78 ERA in three appearances. And senior Mike Heller has a 2-0 record.

Heller lost his father, a friend of Fabbri’s at Fairfield University, in the 9/11 attacks. His success has been special for Fabbri.

He was a kid that was 5-6 and weighed 100 pounds as a freshman,” Fabbri said. “Because I knew him I kept him on the team and he played JV last year and has a partially torn labrum that he’s pitching through, and he’s grinning and bearing it. It’s pretty remarkable on that end. I had never spoken to him about (his father). After the first win it was the first time I mentioned it to Mike. It was a nice moment. I told him I know your dad and he would be really proud of you.”

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Of the newcomers to the lineup, Nick Cullinan (.333, nine RBIs) and Nick Hanna (.323, seven RBIs) have stood out. The Tigers have been a station-to-station team, with just 16 extra-base hits.

“Our offense is still a work in progress,” Fabbri said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

Of greater concern is the defense, which has committed 44 errors. That will have to improve for the pitchers to continue to have sustainable success.

For now, Fabbri is understandably happy.

“We have to tighten up our defense a little bit but I like where we are right now finding a way to win these games,” Fabbri said. Hopefully we will be in a good spot.”

Top Of The Order

1. Darien (10-2, 7-1). The Blue Wave started hell week — five games in five days, three against teams ranked in the top 11 in the state poll — with a 5-4 10-inning win over Warde. Just what coach Mike Scott wanted: having to use pitchers for three more innings.

2. Staples (10-3, 8-2). Impressive 9-0 win over Westhill yesterday keyed by two homers by Drew Rogers.

3. Ridgefield (9-3, 7-2). Too bad we won’t get to see Alex Price going against Darien on Thursday.

4. Wilton (9-3, 5-3). The Warriors are another team that will see their pitching tested by a four-game week.

5. St. Joseph (9-3, 6-2). The Cadets ended a three-game losing streak but have the toughest part of their schedule ahead.