Spencer Azzara stepped to the plate with the game tied and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Under normal circumstances that would be stressful. Add in that it was the Guardians’ final regular season home game, played at Dunkin Donuts Park, with playoff implications on the line.
“It was just about getting the ball in play,” Azzara said of the tense situation, “When you put the ball in play, good things happen.”
A calm, cool, collected Azzara slapped a shot through the heart of the infield, sending home Sam Benedict for a 3-2 walk-off win over RHAM last Tuesday night.
“He put the ball in play and won us a baseball game. I’m super happy for him, that’s a moment he’ll remember for a long time,” said head coach Dennis Accomando, who added the Azzara had to work his way back into the starting lineup this spring, “He's been one of the grittiest guys for us all year and I don’t use that term lightly. It was only two short weeks ago he got benched, not for attitude but for performance. He owned it and he kept working hard for that moment. He’s a great guy to have in that situation because he’s not fazed and he wanted it.”
Azzara, who started the game pitching and ended it with game-winning hit, was mobbed as he rounded first base by his teammates who sprinted out of the dugout as Benedict crossed home plate.
It ended what turned out to be an edge-of-your-seat game, particularly the last two innings.
With the game scoreless in the top of the sixth, RHAM loaded up the bases before scoring two runs when Sean Connolly drove in Chase Melzen and Michael Poncini crossed home plate following a wild pitch, putting the Raptors up 2-0.
Reliever Elliot Hamilton, who was pitching for the first game this season following a back injury, got out of the jam by striking out Chase Massey, stranding three baserunners.
Accomando liked how Hamilton and his team battled through the six-inning adversity, “My message to the guys is that we want this. The more you’re in those environments, the more you’ll learn to thrive in those environments. If you keep sidestepping those tough innings, you’ll never be prepared for the state tournament.”
The Guardians bats responded in the bottom of the sixth.
“At that point we had seen their pitcher at least a couple of times through the order. I felt confident that we would get going,” said [Sam] Benedict, whose twin brother [Jake] Benedict follows him in the batting order, “Jake put one through the 3-6 hole and then Ben [Curcio] hit that double, and I just knew.”
Curcio’s doubled sent [Jake] Benedict home.
“We knew we had to be able to hit the best, because we knew we’d have to hit the best in the state tournament,” said Curcio, “We just shortened up our swings and got on base, and thankfully I was able to gap one.”
Curio reached third on a sacrifice fly and then Accomando brilliantly gambled with a suicide squeeze, sending Curcio home as Owen Stephens executed a textbook bunt, tying the game at two.
“It’s something we practice. We’re prepared for that situation and everything just kind of lined up. I felt like it was the right move,” recalled Accomando, “That pitch it was very difficult for Owen to get that bunt down, and he did a great job.”
Heading into the seventh inning, the momentum had clearly shifted towards Glastonbury and relief pitcher Daniel Cantafi make quick work of RHAM’s lineup with three consecutive outs.
[Sam] Benedict single to start the bottom of the seventh, before both [Jake] Benedict and Curcio were walked, setting up Azzara’s moment in the sun where the Yard Goats normally graze.
“Coach really wanted to make it special for the seniors this year because of what happened last year,” said Curcio, “To see Spencer, a senior, come up and hit a single up the middle to win the game was awesome, it was pretty special.”
The seniors agreed that playing a previous game at the Hartford-base ballpark on May 5, against Simsbury, alleviated some of the nerves last Tuesday.
“We tried to keep it business as usual and keep calm,” Azzara said of the team’s mindset prior to the game, “Last game we had here I might have let it get to me because it’s such a big stadium and everyone was here, but this time I was able to keep my composure and get loose.”
All in all, it was a magical week for the team. The walk-off win was bookended by an 11-0 demolition of Simsbury on Monday and a 2-0 shutout of New Britain on Thursday at Beehive Field.
Stephens pitched a perfect game in the win over Simsbury, pitching 42 strikes on 57 pitches, and extending his scoreless streak to 17 innings.
“You think about it a little bit, but you just have to have fun out there. It’s a game, that’s why we play,” Stephens said of the final innings of his no-hit masterpiece, “This is the first year that I started to throw a lot again. I pitched a lot in 13-14U but this year I knew we lost a lot of pitchers, one being my older brother who was in the senior class last year, so I just try and throw strikes and if they put the ball in play we just make sure we get outs.”
[Sam] Benedict led the offensive charge in the win over Simsbury, going 4-4 with two singles, a double, and a triple.
The win over New Britain closed the regular season and extended the Guardians winning streak to seven games.
Dan Beagle picked up the win and Cantafi earned the save, combining to allow only three hits. The Guardians offense came from Azzara, who scored in the fifth on a double by Hamilton, and Luke Fahey, who scored on a sacrifice by Jayden Sgro. The win secured Glastonbury the #13 seed in the Class LL CIAC Tournament.
The final two weeks of the regular season where a complete turnaround for the Guardians, who were sitting at 7-6 following a loss to Berlin on May 12.
“You always want to come together at the end, and we use the word ‘believe’ because in the beginning we didn’t know if all the guys really believed that we could come together and win a state championship but they’ve all adopted that mantra,” said Accomando, “It’s been really exciting as a coach because they are finally playing to what we think is their potential.”
Accomando’s pupils have followed his lead.
“I think we just settled in. We had played a tough schedule and we lost some tight game against Berlin and Hall, and now were just figuring out how to win those games,” said Stephens, “We’ve come together as a team, playing for each other, pulling the same rope.”
Azzara added, “We’re all individually good players but when we’re playing together that’s when we’re at our best.”
-Special thanks to Bob Curcio for providing stats and information about GHS baseball this spring
Senior Spencer Azzara earned the G-Chain following his walk-off hit to beat RHAM last Tuesday
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin