Greenwich junior Cannons take Branford to the limit in defeat

It seemed like a tall order for the Greenwich American Legion junior Cannons baseball team.

After convincingly beating Tolland 4-0 in the opening round of the state tournament, the junior Cannons, playing with only 10 members on the roster, traveled up to Branford High School to battle top-seeded Branford. With players out of position and battling the heat, Greenwich took the No. 1 team to extra innings before Branford cooled off one of the hottest teams in the state, 3-2 Saturday afternoon.

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say,” Greenwich head coach Sam Abdelwahab said. “We’re missing seven guys, a lot of guys were playing out of position, we were playing the number one team in the state and my guys didn’t care. They came out confident, were the aggressors and that’s all I could ask from them. They left everything they had out on the field today. I had my 10 guys out here today and they played their hearts out. I wish it could have ended any other way for them because they deserve it.”

Knowing it would be a tall order, Abdelwahab wanted his squad to come out of the gates quick and that’s exactly what they did.

In the top of the first inning, Keigo Fujikura led off with a walk and immediately stole second. Next up was Zach Monick, who laid a perfectly placed bunt to the right side of the catcher. On the play, the Branford catcher scooped up the ball and rushed the throw to first, resulting in a high throw that the first baseman couldn’t reach. Monick advanced to third on the play and Fujikura easily scored to give Greenwich a quick 1-0 lead.

“We wanted to come out aggressive and it showed,” Abdelwahab said. “We were stealing and bunting a lot and did everything that we could to get things going. I think we had a much better approach earlier in the game than later, in terms of how we wanted to hit the ball. I think we might have gotten tense towards the end.”

The junior Cannons tacked on another run in the fourth inning. Monick started things off with a broken bat bloop single and stole second. With one out, Michaelangelo Federici hit a roller to second that advanced Monick to third.

With two outs, Bradley Wilpon came to the plate and laced a hard liner to third. On the play, the Branford third baseman got in front of the ball, but wasn’t able to keep the ball in the glove. Wilpon was safe on the error and Monick scored to give the junior Cannons a 2-0 lead.

Wilpon stole second and advanced to third when Justin Gaccione smacked a single to right. However Wilpon wouldn’t get the chance to come around to score, as Branford got out of the inning.

“We look at the Zone every year and always see Stamford, Trumbull and Greenwich up there every year and so were their senior teams,” Branford head coach Ryan Santoro said. “You kind of get the idea that they all know what their program is about. You always know coming into these games that you’re going to play somebody good.”

However, from there, Greenwich was unable to muster any rally the rest of the way, courtesy of Branford starting pitcher Jason Quido.

“You look at him and he’s not overpowering, but he uses his curveball to near perfection,” Santoro said. “He mixes it up, keeps the ball low and knows how to throw the curveball for a ball on an 0-2 or 1-2 count. He was great for us today. That’s his eighth complete game this year and he has six shutouts.”

Quido settled down, kept the junior Cannons off-balance, and only two Greenwich batters left the infield the rest of the way. In the seventh inning, the junior Cannons were retired on three pitches.

“I don’t mind kids swinging at strikes and first pitches, but for every ball to be grounded out shows me that they were all out in front of the ball,” Abdelwahab said. “We talked about that all week, that no matter who we faced, no one was going to throw hard enough to blow it by us. It seemed like we lost a little focus at the end and we kept on getting out in front of the ball. We couldn’t push anything across and that was unfortunate.”

Branford started its comeback in the bottom of the fourth inning. With two outs and the bases loaded, Sean Halligan hit a slow roller to third. The Greenwich third baseman got the ball, but was unable to touch the bag in time and Branford drove in a run.

An inning later, the game was tied, as Branford capitalized on two Greenwich fielding errors.

Although Branford knotted the game, Greenwich starting pitcher Hunter Frantz did his best keeping the junior Cannons in the game, pitching six solid innings and giving up five hits and five walks, while striking out four batters.

“He’s come up big all year and does nothing but throw strikes,” Abdelwahab said. “He battles back, but it seems like we always put him up against the best teams in state. There’s no room for error against those teams that when someone makes a mistake, it puts that much more pressure on him. He did a great job today.”

“The Greenwich pitcher had two good pitches working,” Santoro said. “I know he had a fastball and curveball and threw low. That’s what you got to do. Our number three hitter hits the ball in the parking lot all season for us and he just turned 15. Our four and five hitters do that as well, so for them to do that a lot in a game says a lot.”

Coming in to relieve Frantz was Fujikura and he came up huge in the bottom of the seventh. Branford started the inning with runners on first and second with no outs and then loaded the bases with two outs. Facing a 3-2 count on the Branford batter, Fujikura forced an easy groundout to short to end the threat and force extra innings.

“Keigo was hustling all day over at shortstop and he got us out of the seventh and eighth, but I felt so bad for him in the ninth,” Abdelwahab said. “We had to leave him out there while he was tired, but that’s the game. He gave everything he had for us.”

Branford won the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, as it drew a bases-loaded walk to end the contest.

“They were hot at the end of the season and that tells me that they are the kind of team that finishes strong,” Santoro said. “We knew we were getting a team at the height of their game today and that’s exactly what we got.”

For Branford, although they are the top dogs in the junior legion tournament, looks can be deceiving.

They have that 22-3 regular season record and the Zone II championship, but Branford earned its victories.

“We’ve won five 1-0 games and we’ve won 2-1, 3-2, 5-4 games. Honestly it’s been that way all year. What happened today was the reason why. We made a couple of mistakes, but battled back and that’s how these kids are. They don’t give up. If they lose, it’s because the other team beat them.”

Throughout the season, Abdelwahab said that the team made his job look easy, and that’s a credit to their constant improvement on the diamond.

“I ask them to do something and they do it,” the head coach said. “They execute things better than I could even ask. What they did well was get better every day and that was one of the things I wanted out of them from day one. Everything we talked about in practice last week happened in this game and we executed the way I wanted them to.”


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