STRATFORD – The way Trumbull’s Ally Szabo was pitching in today’s Class LL semifinal, second-guessing Stamford coach Tony Esposito’s decision to call for softball’s riskiest play in a scoreless game in the bottom of the sixth would be illogical.
The Black Knights had just collected their first hit off Szabo, a triple by Lauren O’Neill, to lead off the sixth. They had their best bunter, Sara Staley, at the plate. They had their fastest runner on third with no outs. There is no perfect time for a suicide squeeze play, but this situation was certainly close to it.
So Esposito pushed the button … and it blew up.
Trumbull’s Lea Thompson and Delilha DeStefano then hit home runs off Staley in the top of the seventh and Trumbull was on its way to its first state championship appearance thanks to a 3-0 victory at DeLuca Field.
“We had a good bunter up, a fast runner at third, so we called it,” a dejected Esposito said after the disappointing defeat. “It just didn’t work out.”
After O’Neill broke up Szabo’s no-hit bid, Staley, the Black Knights’ No. 2 batter, stepped up ready to lay down the bunt that would give the second-seeded Black Knights (21-4) the lead. But Szabo’s pitch to the left-handed batter was a bit outside and Staley’s offer to make contact failed. At this point O’Neill was halfway down the line and when she tried to get back to third, Trumbull catcher Courtney Fairfield’s perfect throw to third baseman DeStefano nailed her.
“The pitch was off the plate but I have to get the bunt down,” Staley said. “That’s my fault. I have to make contact.”
Staley’s chances would have improved if the pitch was a strike, or close to it. But an outside pitch to a lefty batter with a runner on third worked out perfectly for the Eagles.
Szabo, who finished with a two-hitter, struck out five and walked three, said of the situation, “I got a little anxious. At that point we were expecting (the suicide squeeze), and I knew my team behind me was ready for it.”
Szabo then struck out Staley and got Maddie Santora to line out to short. A few minutes later Thompson led off the seventh with a homer, and three batters later, after a Szabo single, DeStefano added a two-run shot to give Trumbull a 3-0 lead.
Stamford did get two base runners on in the bottom of the seventh but Szabo escaped the jam and the No. 9-seeded Eagles (20-5) earned the right to play Southington in Saturday’s 7 p.m. championship game at West Haven.
“We were prepared for the suicide squeeze,” Trumbull coach Jacqui Sheftz said. “What has kept us alive in the postseason is our defense. We have maintained our composure in the field in tight spots so far, and we did it again today.”
Szabo retired the first 10 Stamford batters before getting into a jam in the bottom of the fourth. A walk and then a two-base error left Stamford with runners on second and third and one out.
Did someone say suicide squeeze?
“You can ask why I didn’t squeeze then,” Esposito said, unfairly second-guessing himself. “So we don’t do it there and we don’t score, and then we do it in the sixth and it doesn’t work out. But give Trumbull credit. They executed in all phases of the game and did what they had to do to win, and we didn’t.”
Trumbull, meanwhile was having problems of its own against Staley. Szabo, Erica Fluskey, Thompson and Briana Giacobbe had singles off Staley over the first six innings but none reached second base.
After Stamford failed to take advantage of its opportunity in the sixth, the game changed — in a hurry.
“Just like that, everything turned,” Esposito said of the five-minute period between O’Neill’s triple and Thompson’s home run.
Staley said she was not shaken by the failed suicide squeeze attempt, nor was she tired in the top of the seventh.
“It’s really discouraging as a pitcher to give up home runs,” she said. “There is nothing the defense can do about it. It’s all on you. That time was just an unfortunate sequence of events. But we had a great season. It was an amazing time together.”
Stamford was hoping to reach the state final for the first time since winning it all in 2000 and for just the second time ever. Trumbull, meanwhile, is now entering unchartered territory.
“To reach the state final for the first time ever is just amazing,” Szabo said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s real.”
Sheftz, who won state championships in 2007, 2008 and 2013 at Masuk, is not surprised that Trumbull, like Stamford a quarterfinal loser in the FCIAC Tournament, has reached the final.
“I came to Trumbull for a reason,” said Sheftz, now in her second season at the school. “I saw potential and now we are clicking on all cylinders.”
Thompson and Szabo had two hits for Trumbull while O’Neill and Dana Serrichio had Stamford’s only hits off Szabo.
NOTES: Trumbull, which has won 13 of its last 14 games, has beaten No. 24 Shelton, No. 25 Lyman Hall, No. 1 NFA and No. 5 Stamford to reach the final. … Stamford was shut out after outscoring three Class LL tournament opponents by a 36-9 margin in its first three games, and had scored at least 10 runs in 11 of its previous 17 games.