Zachary Zajac on the mound, with first baseman Tino Gagliardi in the background, during Cromwell's first round SLC win over North Branford
Zachary Zajac did it all last Monday night as #4 Cromwell held off #5 North Branford, 1-0, in the opening round of the Shoreline Conference baseball tournament.
The junior pitched a complete game, surrendering only four hits and striking out nine, also driving in the game’s only run.
“Today he was fantastic,” head coach Christian Budzik said of his 6’2” flamethrower, “After that first inning when he kind of ran into a little bit of trouble, he was tough, his curveball was good, he threw for strikes.”
From the plate, Zajac connected on one of Cromwell’s three hits, sending Tino Gagliardi home for what turned out to be the deciding run in the bottom of the first inning. He then protected the thin lead from the hill, getting stronger as the game aged.
“I just tried to stay relax and get my spots,” stated Zajac who wasn’t fazed by the postseason start, “It’s the same routine, same warm up. It’s about staying composed.”
The visiting Thunderbirds threated in the fifth inning when Benjamin Stegina slapped a double, bringing the leading run to the plate.
However, as he had done all game, Zajac centered himself and retired the next two batters with some off-speed magic.
“I want to mess around with them. If a runner is on base, I change up my timing, confuse the hitters and just stay composed. I don’t really think at all, I just throw,” added Zajac.
He fanned a pair of batters in the sixth and the first two in the seventh, before scooping up a hard liner towards the mound and flipping it to Gagliardi for the game’s final out.
The first base umpire was so impressed with Zajac’s performance that he turned to the Cromwell crowd following the game, saying, “That’s one of the most stellar pitching performances I’ve seen.”
It marked the fifth straight win for the Panthers, who closed the regular season with four dominant victories, outscoring the final four by a combined score of 28-6.
“We got 17 guys on the roster right now and everyone has bought in. They just want to win,” said Budzik, whose team stated the season with a pair of loss, “The beginning of the year we were striking out a lot and not really playing smart baseball, giving up a lot of runs. Now everyone is going in the same direction and we’ve jelled pretty well throughout the year.”
Gagliardi has been the muscle from the plate, while occupying first base. He has hit .500, leading the team in hits (31) and RBIs (24), while also mentoring the younger guys in the field.
“Having him over there is like having that rock that calms everybody down,” Budzik said of his senior first baseman, “It’s nice because we have a sophomore at second and Colby [DiMenna] a freshman in right. Colby committed an error and Tino was talking to him the whole time. It’s really good knowing that us as a coaching staff don’t have to worry about what is going on that side of the field. We trust him and he is more than capable of taking care of that.”
Gagliardi, who is committed to Curry College for baseball, appreciated the gritty conference win, “With our rotation, I know that we can win even if our bats aren’t hot that day. If we can put up two or three runs, I have confidence in our rotation and that we can get it done in the field. We have some younger guys on the rotation that just come out and do their job.”
Zajac, (senior) Justin Valentin, (senior) Tyler Szrejna, (sophomore) Ian Mihalopoulos, and (sophomore) Brandon Berean have taken turns manning the mound for Cromwell this season.
Zajac pointed to an 8-3 victory at Coginchaug on April 22 as the turning point this season. At the time, the team was 1-3, “At the beginning of the year we were down and not confident. We got that win and that gave us the confidence. We have just been plowing through teams since then.”
The win sparked a six-game winning streak.
Gagliardi added, “In the beginning we came out and we weren’t really swinging the bats that well. Our defense has always been good but once we started swinging the bats with confidence we’ve just kept it going. It’s about confidence from top to bottom every single game.”
Gagliardi is leading a senior class of six, which is getting production from everyone. Along with pitching, Valentin is leading the team in runs scored. Brian Radziewicz, Malcolm Mention, and Jake Gagnon have also been solid behind the dish.
Budzik added, “Everyone is just playing as a team, they are playing with each other and not playing for themselves. For the most part these kids have been around since I got this job three years ago and we’ve grown up together and came through the ranks. They are great kids to coach, they are easy to coach, and they work hard.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin