FAIRFIELD — Chris Benton struck out the side in the top of the first. He hit a grand slam in the bottom half of the inning.
Then his day got good.
In a tour de force performance, Benton went 4-for-4, added a pair of doubles, drove in eight runs and allowed two hits over four innings to lead Fairfield Ludlowe to a 14-0 win over Staples in a game shortened to five innings because of the mercy rule.
Benton struck out eight. His lone blemish was ignoring coach Mike Francese’s sign in the fourth in an attempt to stretch a double into a triple to hit for the cycle.
Benton started the game by striking out Chad Knight, the Wreckers’ star who again attracted an army of scouts. Benton said that set the tone.
“I was pretty hyped when I struck out Chad,” said Benton. “From there I knew I had my stuff and everything just clicked for me, especially in the box too. I just had an empty mind and let my body take control and go from there. It felt good.”
The Falcons (15-2, 11-2 FCIAC) started the day one game behind the Wreckers for first place in the league standings. Now, with just three games left, Ludlowe has the inside track for the regular-season title, the most difficult and least remembered accomplishment.
“I’ve been coaching long enough to know that every game is a playoff game in this conference,” Ludlowe coach Mike Francese said. “You have to win as many as you can to get a good seed. Everyone wants to be in the playoffs. That’s always our goal. For us to be in the position we’re in right now and to beat the team ahead of us, yeah that feels good, but we still have a lot of work to do. We have to be hot next week because it is a single elimination tournament. You have to have consistency from your team and right now we’re getting it.”
Nothing went right for Staples from the outset. Ludlowe’s first three batters reached and then Benton homered to left off of Harry Azadian.
“We were definitely looking forward to this game all week,” Benton said. “Probably all season actually because this is our biggest competitor right now.”
Staples coach Jack McFarland opted to remove Azadian after two innings, and the Falcons tacked on five runs each against two pitchers in the third and fourth innings.
“I just wanted to get him out and get an extra start on Monday and keep his pitch count down,” McFarland said. “After that it was what it was. You got a good look at one of their pitchers who has pretty good velocity and get a scouting report. Obviously there is no trophy table here. Single elimination will be a different type of game.”
Benton, who had singled in the second, drove in two runs with a double in the third and three more in the fourth with his second double.
Ludlowe had scored 14 runs yesterday against Westhill, rousing memories of a year ago, when they scored 69 runs during one five-game span.
— Dave Ruden (@DaveRuden) May 8, 2019
“It was Chris Benton Day,” Francese said. “We’ve been waiting for an offensive breakout from this team and we got it yesterday and we got it today, against a very good team obviously. Staples is a well-respected team in the state with really good players. For us to just come out and set the tone in the first inning with the grand slam, and Chris not only being the big hitter but also being the pitcher that shut them down as well, you can’t ask any more from a player. That’s an unbelievable game.”
Benton made Vince Camera’s two-hit, three-RBI game seem almost pedestrian. Jack Vogel also had two hits and drove in a run.
Benton’s bat overshadowed his arm. He shut down one of the state’s top offenses.
Asked which aspect of his game pleased him most, Benton said, “Probably pitching just because I shut down a good offense and usually our team manufactures enough runs to win with good pitching. I thought it would be a close 1-0 game maybe, seeing who could get on top. It just felt great both hitting and pitching. I was feeling good, the weather is nice and I’m ready to play some playoff baseball.”
Francese said Benton’s performance will be etched in Ludlowe sports lore.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a guy have an overall game like that and be the winning pitcher,” Francese said. “Credit to him to just come out and play his game.”
McFarland said today was aberrant, a game you try to immediately erase from memory.
“We were a little flat, a little sluggish, a good pitcher, he did a nice job on the mound, at the plate,” McFarland said. “He had a big day.”