By Hayley Tafuro
STAMFORD—The Stamford Senior Legion team’s fate came down to a full count in Middletown’s last at-bat of game 3 in the Sweet 16 series at Cubeta Stadium on Thursday night. After shuffling through a handful of pitchers between games 2 and 3, it was Ronnie Jackson who had the ball in his hands against Middletown’s hard hitter Will Woods.
Jackson earned possibly the strikeout of his life as the final pitch sealed Stamford’s 5-4 victory and advancement in the state tournament.
“Ronnie wants the ball in that spot,” Stamford Coach Kevin Murray said. “He wanted the ball, I saw it in his eyes and we had true confidence in him to come in and throw strikes, and he did the job.”
Setting the scene for this down-to-the-wire victory was a tough game two in the opener of the doubleheader for Stamford, which fell to Middletown, 12-9. Middletown had a 4-0 lead before starting pitcher Pete Horn left the game with a hamstring injury. Grant Stone entered for Stamford and the woes continued as Middletown continued its hitting streak and increased the lead to 7-0.
The first Stamford run came at the bottom of the fifth, starting off with a double from Cam Greig and an RBI single from Johnny Spoto. Stamford made a late rally in the ninth inning, when it scored six runs, sparked by a triple from Spoto and an RBI double from Randy Polonia. Greig then placed a ball deep into centerfield, which brought in what would end up being Stamford’s last runs of the game. Despite the rough start, this team ended hot and looked ready to carry the momentum into the final game of the series.
Enter Kevin Stone, who has shined for his team all season long, and did just that in a heated third game, when he had 12 strikeouts and only allowed one run. Despite all of the pressure that lay on this game, Stone looked cool as could be on the mound.
“You try not to think about it but when you’re getting ready you get butterflies,” he said. “I’m really confident (in the defense) because I know I have to trust them. I can’t strike everybody out, and they’ll put the ball in play but our defense takes care of the rest.”
Stamford took an early 1-0 lead in the first inning with a leadoff double from Polonia and a base hit from RJ Moavero that bounced past second base.
In the fourth Polonia came up to bat with the bases loaded and drove a ball into leftfield to bring in three more runs, increasing the lead to 4-0.
Despite a Middletown run in the fifth, Stone answered in his next at-bat and homered to leftfield, putting Stamford ahead, 5-1.
Shawn Urbano came in to relieve Stone in the eighth, which proved to be a defensive showcase of an inning, highlighted by an unbelievable diving catch from leftfielder Brian Powers to end the inning and put the team one step closer to advancing to the Elite Eight.
Middletown would not go down without a fight and made it interesting in the ninth with a bases-loaded trip by Jared Pflaumer, cutting the lead to 5-4.
In came Jackson, ready for the call, with two outs on the board. He filled up the count and the rest was history after throwing the last strike of the day and being mobbed by his Legion teammates and coaches.
“Ronnie doesn’t pitch much, but we’ve got tremendous confidence in him,” Stone said. “He’s a great ballplayer and we trust him all the way.”
“We’re playing at our home field and we really wanted to come out here to prove a point: That we’re really supposed to be here,” Murray said after making it one step closer to what he proclaimed his goal was in the beginning of the season: to be the last team standing. “The kids came out and they wanted this bad.”
The victory was thrilling in a dramatic fashion, and amidst all of the excitement, Stamford has already set its sights on the next task at hand.
“It feels awesome, especially since we unfortunately couldn’t get this far last year, but getting there this year is a little feather in the cap and we’ll go forward,” Stone said.
“It’s American Legion baseball,” said Murray. “It’s very competitive at this point and every team is dangerous. You’ve got to execute and you’ve got to be ready every inning, because it’s nine innings, and a lot of things can happen. They battled to the last out, and it could’ve definitely changed, but it’s a great win for our team and we’re ready to go.”