FAIRFIELD – Stamford High School softball coach Tony Esposito and his pitcher Sara Staley both had an unsettling feeling as the Black Knights took the field at Sacred Heart University for the bottom of the seventh inning of Wednesday’s Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference semifinal.
The reason for such queasiness: The top of the order was coming up for Westhill, whose 1 through 4 hitters were a combined 6 for 11 on the day. Gabby Laccona, Adriana Gambino, Kaira Ramon and Jordan Benzaken are considered one of the most dangerous batting foursomes in the FCIAC.
But somehow, after the first two girls reached base safely, Staley wiggled out of the jam by retiring Ramon on a groundout and inducing Benzaken to hit into a line-drive double play. The tense finish preserved Stamford’s 6-4 victory and earned the Knights a berth in Thursday’s 5 p.m. championship game at SHU against St. Joseph.
“It was not something you want to see,” Esposito said about how the seventh inning was playing out … until Stamford second baseman Gloria Mattioli snared the liner off Benzaken’s bat. “Fortunately for us the ball went right to (Mattioli) and we got the double play. A little luck never hurts.”
The seventh inning was similar, in a kind of opposite way, from the top of the first, when things went much more positively for Westhill.
After Westhill junior starting pitcher Edyliese Aquino walked the first three Stamford batters, Westhill coach Tom Pia replaced her with the senior Gambino. Benzaken, the Vikings’ catcher, then picked off the runner at third before Gambino struck out the next two batters. If the Knights were lucky to survive the seventh unscathed, the same could be said of the Vikings in the top of the first.
“It was a real quick hook,” Pia said about the pitching change. “I just didn’t see confidence in (Aquino) so I pulled her out.”
Things got worse for Stamford when Westhill struck for two runs on Benzaken’s single off Staley in the bottom of the first.
“The first inning was a little rough and discouraging,” Staley said. “But we bounced right back.”
In the top of the third, Stamford (14-8), the No. 6 seed, got hits from Lauren O’Neill, Maddie Santora, Kristin Osburn and Allie Buzzeo to go with a couple of costly Westhill errors to score five runs. Aside from that one inning, Gambino allowed just one run on two hits in her six other innings of work.
“I wasn’t expecting to go in that early,” said Gambino, who is used more as a closer than a starter. “I’m not used to pitching a full game. In the fifth we had a couple of errors and Stamford hit the ball well. We couldn’t do anything about that.”
Run-scoring singles by Alyssa Blank and Laccona in the bottom of the fourth got second-seed Westhill (17-4) back within one run at 5-4. Staley then helped her own cause with an RBI triple in the top of the fifth making it 6-4.
“Tack-on runs are huge,” Esposito said of the Knights’ fifth-inning insurance run. “It made the whole seventh inning a lot different.”
The seventh-inning strategy was changed, no doubt, but still played heavily on the minds of each coach.
“After (Laccona singled and Gambino reached on an error), I was thinking about maybe bunting to move the runners up,” Pia said. “But do you want to give up an out there? So I didn’t bunt but (Ramon) advanced the runners anyway (on slow groundout to second).”
Then with runners on second and third with one out and the dangerous Benzaken (two singles, a double, two RBIs) coming up, it was decision time for Esposito: Do you walk her intentionally to get a force at any base but put the potential winning run on base, or take your chances? After a brief misunderstanding, Esposito chose B.
“I put my hand out to tell (catcher Tori Cuscuna) to pitch Benzaken outside and she thought I meant to intentionally walk her,” Esposito said of the first pitch, an intentional ball.
“”It was a little misunderstanding,” Staley added, “but it all came out right.”
Benzaken’s line drive looked headed for right-center field, which is why both runners were well off second and third when Mattiola made the grab. Mattiola then raced to second for the game-ending, unassisted double play.
“I honestly thought the ball was going through,” said Gambino, who was on second base. “But Mattiola was like a vacuum.”
O’Neill led Stamford with two hits and Osborn had two RBIs, while Staley had an RBI triple and Santora an RBI double. Staley finished with six strikeouts and one walk and allowed nine hits.
Benzaken and Lacuna each had three hits for Westhill, while Alyssa Blank had an RBI double. Gambino struck out eight, walked one and allowed six hits.
NOTES: Stamford beat Fairfield Warde, 7-2, to reach the semifinals while Westhill beat Fairfield Ludlowe, 10-1, in the quarterfinals. … Westhill defeated Stamford 6-5 in nine innings back on April 29. … Westhill had won 14 of its last 15 before Wednesday while Stamford has now won eight of its last nine. …Stamford, which lost to St. Joseph in last year’s FCIAC final, last won the FCIAC title in 2002. Westhill was looking for its first league crown since winning back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.