After a convincing 7-1 victory Wednesday at Greenwich, ranked second in the FCIAC, the New Canaan Rams took to the field at Mead Park on Thursday afternoon needing a win over New Fairfield to clinch a spot in this year’s CIAC Class L Tournament field.
It would not come.
Though the Rams (7-13, 6-10 FCIAC) had one of their more reliable arms starting on the mound in Zach Lopez, who just last Wednesday notched a complete game victory, two three-run innings from New Fairfield (11-9) combined with the New Canaan bats just not coming alive proved to be too much for them to overcome as they were defeated, 6-0.
When head coach Mitch Hoffman took his team out to left field after the game for possibly the final time this season, the seventh-year coach did so with a distinct message in mind.
“I said to them that I learned as much about coaching and myself that they could ever imagine,” Hoffman told NewCanaanite.com. “For every senior that is graduating, whether they’re going on to play baseball or not, they represent the [New Canaan] name they wear on their chest. We win together, we lose together and we play together. We want them all to come back and be a part of this program in the future. They’re a part of it and each year we learn something different and new. And they all taught us some valuable lessons that we’ll all take with us for the rest of our time.”
Lopez started by retiring New Fairfield shortstop Brandon Barile on a groundout to short. However, the next three batters scored. Left fielder Jackson Lathrop singled to center and then scored during first baseman Tyler Hart’s at-bat as a result of a New Canaan throwing error, to put the Rebels up 1-0. One batter later, centerfielder Jenner Stunkard ripped a Lopez pitch over the right field fence for a two-run home run and an early 3-0 lead for New Fairfield, stunning the home crowd.
Lopez rebounded to retire the next two batters but would look for some early offensive help from his teammates to get the Rams back in the game. But while Robby Jones got a double in the bottom half of the first, aided by the centerfield tree, New Canaan could not drive him home and instead still trailed by three.
Lopez got through the top of the second unscathed thanks to a pretty double play started by Rams second baseman Nate Bozella. And shortstop Pat Diamond got the offense started with a leadoff double in the bottom half. But New Fairfield pitcher Jacob Whiting escaped the inning without allowing a run.
Lopez faced the minimum in the top of third hoping to provide a spark for his offense by keeping the deficit at three. However new Rebels pitcher Greg Radovic retired the Rams in order in the bottom half. Lopez continued dealing in the fourth, retiring the New Fairfield side, one-two-three. But Radovic answered with another one of his own.
So as the game entered the top of the fifth, the three first inning runs the Rebels scored were still holding up. So with Lopez knowing he needed another zero, he quickly retired the first two New Fairfield batters and it seemed like it’d be another quick inning for the Rams junior pitcher. But though he got Rudy Sarro to hit a groundball, it took an unfriendly hop and resulted in another Rams error and the inning continuing.
Sarro advanced to second on a wild pitch during Barile’s at-bat. Then Barile hit a high-chopper to short, too slowly for him to be retired. Barile stole second in the ensuing at-bat of Lathrop, who then singled one up the middle to center to plate Sarro for a 4-0 lead. Lathrop would take second on the throw home to put runners on second and third. Lopez then walked Hart to load the bases and that was all for him as Hoffman took the ball and called upon Troy Dunnam in the hopes of limiting the damage.
Next up to the plate stepped Stunkard who after delivering a two-run shot back in the first, came up clutch for the Rebels once again with another two-RBI hit, this time a single to center, to put New Fairfield up six.
Dunnam rebounded to strikeout the next batter and officially close the book on Lopez (4 2/3 IP, 6 R (2ER), 4 H, 1 K, 2 BB). But with only three at-bats left for New Canaan, the six-run deficit seemed just too large for them to overcome.
And it was. While the Rams had baserunners in each of the remaining three innings, they just could not find a way to get them to come on home.
One bright spot for New Canaan was in the top of the seventh when Rams senior co-captain Jack Havard came in to face one batter and get the final out of the inning so the senior could, proverbially, go out on top.
“How could you not,” Hoffman said when asked about putting Havard in. “It’s unfortunate for him how the year turned out. He only had one bad outing this entire year and unfortunately the times he was pitching we didn’t hit for him. So I wanted him to end it on that.”
New Canaan finishes its regular season with a 7-13 record, one win shy of the required eight wins for an automatic berth in the CIAC Class L Tournament. But, as of this writing, the understanding is that they still remain a possibility for an at-large bid, depending on what amount of other programs in Class L qualify for an automatic berth.
But if Thursday should be the final time the 2016 Rams take the field, Hoffman believes this season is one everyone involved can learn from.
“I truly believe that they left it out on the field. I think we got a couple bad breaks this year. And what they [those who return next year] would have to learn is that maybe we’ll need to do things a little bit differently. Maybe prepare a little bit different. They need to learn just to hold their head up high and play the game with dignity. As long as they take that mentality into next year, they’ll be fine. Look, it’s not easy keeping a group like this playing together the entire season. What I mean is when you go from being state champs and hosting FCIAC tournaments to going 7-13, the wheels could fall off really fast—but they never did. And that’s a testament to this group. I think of them like family. It [the season potentially ending] hurts. And it hurt some of the seniors real bad, but they’ll still be our leaders even after they graduate.”