NEWINGTON - Zach Nakonechny stepped to the plate with no expectation of being the hero on Tuesday afternoon.
After teammate Gunnar Johnson ripped a game-tying double in the seventh inning for the Newington baseball team, Nakonechny stepped in with one goal in mind: play his part in a bigger picture and drop down a bunt to move Johnson over, and hope another teammate could finish the job and complete the comeback against New Britain.
“You have to do what you have to do,” Nakonechny said. “Everyone has a role and a job, and it just so happened that I had to do that. It’s about doing anything for the team.”
In a sacrificial state of mind, Nakonechny dropped down a perfect bunt, leaving Hurricanes reliever Danniel Rivera with no choice but to go for the out at third. Instead, the toss to third trickled into the outfield, allowing Johnson to score and give the Indians a thrilling 4-3 win at home.
“Gunnar and Zach came up huge when they needed to,” Newington head coach Ben Alaimo said. “Because of that, we were able to come away with a win against a real scrappy and tough team in New Britain.”
The Indians (12-4) did not look like a team poised for a walk-off winner in the early innings, as a trio of baserunning mistakes and two costly errors in the field helped New Britain (7-9) come back from a 2-1 deficit.
Trailing by one heading into the seventh, Newington wiped the slate clean and denied the Hurricanes a shot at securing a state tournament berth, dashing New Britain’s hopes by capitalizing on the fielding miscue.
“That’s the game,” New Britain head coach Roberto Mercado said. “You give good teams extra outs and they’re going to take advantage. They took advantage of ours and we took advantage of some of theirs. It was one of those back-and-forth games.”
Before the seventh inning, it was Mercado’s group which had the look of the comeback kids, determined to pull off an upset and punch its ticket to the tournament.
Trailing by one in the sixth, New Britain put runners at second and third with one out after an error and Chris Gibbs’ third hit of the game. Kevin Slisz, who denied a run by Newington the previous inning with a dart from right field to nab Johnson at home plate, smacked a hard grounder right back to the mound, which starter Jack Kelley fielded cleanly and fired home to get the lead runner and preserve the one-run lead. Now one strike away from escaping, Kelley forced Ryan Lipinski to bounce a seemingly harmless grounder to short, but the ball scooted under the glove of a charging Mike Sobolewski, allowing Gibbs to score and tie the game.
“Our first game against Newington we struggled at the plate and had 11 strikeouts, so to come to the plate and have a comeback was great,” Gibbs said.
Again, Kelley came within one strike of ending the inning the next batter, and again the Hurricanes came through, as Rivera smoked a line drive single to left to give New Britain its first lead of the game.
The Indians made their third baserunning blunder of the game in the bottom of the sixth, and it was their most costly mishap of the day. Pinch hitter Sean Callahan led off the frame with an opposite-field double down the left field line, but after Rivera relieved New Britain starter Rufino Santiago, Callahan was picked off second base after venturing too far off the bag. Rivera responded with a pair of strikeouts to end the inning.
Newington needed a rally in the bottom of the seventh, and found one thanks to its hottest hitter. After a leadoff single by Ryan Saindon, Johnson drilled a 1-2 pitch to the wall in right center for a game-tying RBI double, and still nobody out in the inning. That brought up the cleanup hitter in Nakonechny, who was asked to drop down a bunt, a rarity for a No. 4 hitter in the lineup. Still, Nakonechny didn’t hesitate.
“Our postgame speech was about being selfless,” Alaimo said. “You don’t need to hit a ball a million miles to do the job.”
Nakonechy’s bunt traveled a far less distance than Johnson’s game-tying smash, but it rolled the exact distance it needed to in order to set up an uncomfortable situation for Rivera, who in one motion ran down the ball and heaved a toss to the third baseman Gibbs, who watched the ball glance off his glove and trickle into the outfield, sparking a boisterous celebration from the Newington dugout as Johnson slid home before running to mob Nakonechny.
“New Britain put up a really good fight,” Nakonechny said. “That was a really competitive game. But we stayed positive as a group and when you do that, good things happen.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org