WESTFIELD, Mass. — There was no controversy this time.
The score wasn’t close, and no single call swayed the outcome.
There was no doubt about who earned the New England Regional championship.
The Keene 15 and under Babe Ruth team lost in the New England final Wednesday to Norwalk (Conn.), 8-4, at Bullens Field in Westfield, Mass.
The same teams faced off in last year’s 14U regional final, and Norwalk won that game as well, 3-2 in 10 innings, a game that will be remembered for its controversial call that wiped out the game-winning run for Keene in the bottom of the seventh.
But there were no questionable calls this time, just a lack of execution on all fronts.
“The first year [in the 13U finals] we won it, last year it felt like it was stolen from us and this year we kind of gave it away,” Keene Manager Chad Branon said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way the game of baseball goes. If you have an off-day and you’re not sharp, good teams will take advantage of that, and that’s what [Norwalk] did.”
The struggles ironically started at the plate, as the offense had been been Keene’s most reliable strength throughout its postseason run. The team had scored in double figures in all but one of its games dating back to the state tourney, but the Keene bats floundered out of the gate Wednesday.
After coming up empty in the first as Norwalk took a 1-0 lead, Keene came back to tie in the second, with a well-executed hit-and-run play that resulted in an RBI double to right-center field for Jack McLaughlin and Jacob Kidney scoring all the way from first.
But the bats went cold after that, with Keene hitters failing to even reach second base over the next three innings against Norwalk pitcher Vance Ward.
“He had a very good slider that was breaking away from everybody,” Keene third baseman Liam Conley said. “I’m a lefty, so it was coming towards me, so I was able to fight it off, but it was hard to hit for the righties.”
Things started coming around for Keene in the sixth. Back-to-back singles by Tucker Brown and Connor Branon were followed by a two-run double to left by Conley, who later scored on a sacrifice fly to right by Kidney.
But by then, Keene was trying to come back from an 8-1 deficit, and three runs just weren’t going to cut it. The team got two runners on again in the seventh against reliever Ali Morin, but a 1-6-3 double play ended the game.
“The problem is,” Brannon said, “you’ve got to have discipline. If you’re hitting strikes, you’re gonna be a lot more successful than if he gets you to chase one of his pitches. You’ve got to give it to him, he was working ahead in the count a lot, so he put us in positions that we had to protect.”
Working the count was a struggle for Keene’s pitchers all game.
Alex Charles (2.1 innings), Kidney (2) and McLaughlin (1.2) combined to walk 10 Norwalk batters, with at least one walk each inning. Four of those walked batters went on to score for Norwalk, and two actually drove in runs.
“I think sometimes when the rhythm of the game isn’t going your way, it just adds some stress,” Branon said.
Ward scored Norwalk’s first run in the bottom of the first, getting his free pass to first and then stealing second, moving to third on a groundout and scoring on a sacrifice fly to right by Brendan Edvardsen. Two innings later, back-to-back walks by Danny Miller and Ward set up Edvardsen for a go-ahead RBI single through the right infield gap.
In the fourth, a single by Mitch Stiles and back-to-back walks by Cole Forcellina and Ben Boccanfuso loaded the bases with one out, then a flurry of runs came in on an error at third, a single to left by Miller and an error at short, putting Norwalk up 5-1.
Three more runs were scored in the fifth — two on bases-loaded walks by Phil Nora and Miller, and one on a single to center by Ward.
“The other team had a lot of discipline at the plate,” Branon said. They took pitches on two strikes that I think should be called a strike at 15 years old, and apparently that’s not the way it is.
“You’ve got to hand it to them; they made us work and they came out on top.”
It was a rough finish for Keene, but three straight trips to the New England finals and one title is nothing to sneeze at.
The result marked the final year playing in the orange jerseys of the Greater Keene program for these players, who move on to the senior Babe Ruth league with the Junior Swamp Bats, or to Legion baseball with Gordon-Bissell Post 4.
The hope for Coach Branon is that the group finds a way to stay together as it move on to the bigger stages, but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s clear this won’t be the last time these young men will be seen on a baseball diamond.
“[We’re] disappointed, but we’re gonna keep our heads held high,” Conley said. “Next year we’re gonna come back, play hard and go places.”