STAMFORD — You don’t put up a 24-3 record without talent, something the Stamford Senior Legion baseball team has in abundance.
Coach Kevin Murray has had the luxury of decision-making in a liberal manner. If it seems like he bucks convention, it is that he is not constrained in a way as some of his colleagues.
That has been evident throughout the summer and was again on Wednesday afternoon, when Stamford opened a state tournament Sweet 16 best-of-three series against Middletown.
Stamford struggled scoring runs despite putting runners on base, and pitcher Randy Polonia labored at times with his command. But Stamford managed to do just enough offensively and Polonia consistently worked out of trouble.
The end result was a 3-2 win at Cubeta Stadium.
“I think we needed this first game,” Murray said. “Baseball is interesting. The ball can bounce either way.”
It has been bouncing Stamford’s way all season. A bad hop here or there can undue all that the team has thus far accomplished.
That might explain why Stamford was initially tentative on Wednesday, rather than strutting to the step of its .890 winning percentage thus far.
“The philosophy is we are not going to look past anybody,” Murray said. “We have a lot of guys that can get the job done. It is all about confidence and relying on each other to get the job done.”
Murray tapped Randy Polonia, the reigning FCIAC Player of the Year, to start the opening game against Middletown. Polonia admitted to being a little tense as he took the mound.
“In high school I didn’t pitch in the state tournament,” said Polonia, who sustained an ankle injury last month on the eve of Trinity Catholic High School’s postseason. “This was my first state tournament appearance. I was a little nervous.”
Polonia allowed only a pair of unearned runs — in the seventh inning (state tournament games are nine innings). Both were unearned and sparked by a leadoff infield single in which the batter appeared to be out. He struck out the final batter he faced with two on. Shawn Urbano pitched two strong innings of relief for the save.
Polonia threw 106 pitches. He retired the side in order just twice. But he only allowed four hits and consistently worked out of trouble.
Polonia’s B-plus game is still in the 99th percentile.
“There’s something special about that kid,” Murray said. “He loves the spotlight.”
Polonia said he knew right away he was going to be in a battle, with himself as much as Middletown.
“I felt like I wasn’t throwing the ball for first strikes,” Polonia said. “I was not in a groove. It was not my best.”
Stamford’s offense finally broke through in the fourth inning. Kevin Stone hit a leadoff double and one out later Chris Ruiz singled to put runners on the corners. Ryan Lee and Pete Horn followed with back-to-back RBI singles.
After stranding a runner on third in the fifth for the second time, Stamford got what proved to be the winning run an inning later, when Horn had his second hit and John Spoto came through with a two-out single.
“It wasn’t frustrating because I knew we were going to come through,” Polonia said. “We left runners on base. It happens.”
There will not be too many more times that Stamford finishes with 12 hits and just three runs.
“We couldn’t get that hit,” Murray said. “Hopefully we will tomorrow. This team is too good.”
Though Stone has been the team’s most valuable player this summer, Murray said that Horn will be the starting pitcher for game two Thursday afternoon. If Middletown wins, it is safe to assume Stone will be called on to keep Stamford’s summer alive.
“Pitching is our key,” Murray said. “We have six or seven kids who can come in. We are well-armed. These guys have won in a lot of ways.”
It is a gift for Murray, whose biggest decisions are made based on strength rather than weakness.
It is a reason Stamford is well positioned for a long ride. It may be late July, but its summer could just be heating up.