MIDDLETOWN — Chad Knight, as hard as it may seem, today added to his already established legacy.
The Staples senior pitcher, who has accomplished so much on the baseball diamond from Little League to high school, pitched a three-hit shutout to lead the Wreckers to a 3-0 win over Southington in the CIAC Class LL state championship on a picturesque afternoon at Palmer Field.
Knight, the Gatorade Player of the Year and Duke-bound standout, improved his personal record to 9-0 to help No. 5-seed Staples (25-3) capture its second state title in three years and third overall. He had a fantastic run through the state tournament, pitching 16 total innings, allowing zero runs with back-to-back complete-game shutouts — in the semifinals (3-0 over top-seeded Cheshire on Wednesday) and in the final (10 Ks, two walks, both in the seventh).
Not a bad run at all.
“It’s a lot of work but you know what? It’s the most rewarding thing in the world,” Knight said to the throng of reporters surrounding him afterwards. “To hoist that trophy and call ourselves state champs… all the credit in the world goes out to my teammates, especially my catcher Ben Schattman — he held up great all season — and my coaches. It’s a great accomplishment for the entire Staples program.”
The script couldn’t have played out any better for coach Jack McFarland, who was hoping his team could scratch out a few runs, play error-less defense and ride the right arm of Knight. That’s how it played out.
The three runs came off a sacrifice fly by senior Kevin Rabacs in the top of the fourth inning, on an error off an attempted pickoff at third in the fifth and on a passed ball in the sixth.
“The ball wasn’t carrying today so the ball wasn’t leaving the park,” McFarland said. “We knew we had to use our athletic ability, maybe score on a wild pitch. We needed to get the lead and put the ball in Chad’s hand. We went through Cheshire and Southington, two of the best programs in Connecticut, and we didn’t commit one error. That’s the difference.”
As for his ace, McFarland said there was no way he was taking the ball from him, even though Southington brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh.
“Today Chad really had his curveball going, early in the count, working ahead,” McFarland said. “There was some question whether he was going to start. He wanted the ball, he took it and now it’s going to be his legacy. He did a great job.”
It’s been a great weekend for McFarland after he watched his daughter Megan win a state title of her own for Masuk softball on Friday night.
Things started off a bit shaky for Knight, who gave up two hits in the bottom of the first to No. 3 Southington (21-4) but he set down the next three batters to escape the jam.
From there, he retired 17 of 18 batters going into the final frame.
Southington starter Ryan Henderson (5-3) was up to the task early on and didn’t allow any runs until the fourth, due in part because the defense behind him made a few errors.
Senior Harry Azadian led off the fourth with a single up the middle. Senior Andrew Moy laid down a perfect bunt on the infield that forced the third baseman to make a tough throw. The throw was off and Moy ran into the first baseman’s glove as the ball came loose for an error.
Adam Petro, who reached base three times, including on a double, followed with a walk to load the bases, which brought Rabacs to the plate. Rabacs lifted a fly ball to center which was deep enough to score Azadian and give the Wreckers a 1-0 lead.
“I was just trying to do my job,” Rabacs said. “We always try to situational hit and do a job. I just tried to hit the ball hard and get a run in. That’s what happened.”
“Everyone believes in each other and it’s someone different every day,” Rabacs added of some of the unsung heroes on the team. “We’re just gritty and want to win really badly.”
Zach Zobel, who went 2-for-4, accounted for his team’s second run in the fifth when he reached on an infield hit off the foot of Henderson and proceeded to steal second. He wound up at third on a groundout and eventually scored on an errant pickoff attempt from relief pitcher Jason Krar.
Rabacs tacked on another insurance run in the sixth when he walked, took second on a sacrifice bunt by senior Chris Veneruso, reached third on a groundout and came home on a passed ball. Rabacs was tough to get out as he reached base three times, by a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a single.
Southington coach Charlie Lembo said his team couldn’t capitalize on its chances and failing to do so against a pitcher like Knight proved costly.
“We just made too many mistakes, that’s what it comes down to, and we gave them a couple of runs,” said Lembo, whose team made three errors on the day. “(Knight) was really good, especially on three days’ rest, but we knew he’d be good. We just needed to have better at-bats and limit the mistakes.”
The Blue Knights were looking to take the momentum in the top of the seventh, when they threw a runner out at the plate, into the bottom of the frame. Things looked promising when Jake Neuman and Jake Roman worked back-to-back walks to start the inning.
Knight settled down and got a fielder’s choice grounder back to the mound, with Roman out at second, a strikeout and a groundout to second to set off the Staples celebration.
“They are unbelievable,” said McFarland of his team. “They were all business today. I got great leadership out of my seniors and captains, I have a great coaching staff and the kids bought in. It’s not easy to be a Staples baseball player but if they work hard they’ll be playing for something like this.”
Knight, who has had a pretty good week after being drafted by the New York Yankees and capped his high school career with FCIAC and Class LL championships, only needed 98 pitches for his gem.
“This will be a season to remember,” he said. “As excited I am to say we’re state champs and look at that trophy and see the medals around our neck, I’m going to miss each one of those guys so much more as we go on our journeys next year.”