ORANGE, Conn. — Odds were stacked against the Mystic/Groton Softball All-Stars in the Junior Little League (13-14 year olds) Eastern Regional final Thursday against West Cumberland, N.J.
The locals exhausted their top two pitchers’ inning-eligibility Wednesday in two grueling games against host District 4 to win the New England title at the same Stankye Field. That forced Groton/Mystic to use No. 3 starting pitcher Sue Mewha, who was a Maytag repair person of sorts during postseason play as the locals roared through district, state sectional, state and Eastern Regional play undefeated largely behind the 1-2 mound combo of Caroline Taber and Jayden Delaporta.
And after New Jersey took a 6-0 lead after one inning in the final Thursday, Mystic/Groton looked as far away from winning the Eastern Regional title as the mileage is from here to the Junior League World Series in Kirkland, Wash.
Looking emotionally drained and depressed while trailing 7-0 after three innings, Groton/Mystic replaced any whispers of a mercy-rule loss with a stirring comeback, pounding the ball offensively and settling defensively to support Mewha past the shaky start for both. The end result fell just 60 feet short as Mystic left the tying run on third base, losing the Eastern Regional final, 9-8, against the Mid-Atlantic champ.
“This team never gives up.” Mystic coachTom Taber said. “We battled the last two months to get this far, and even though we were up against it having expired our top two pitchers Wednesday, I knew we were not going to go out quietly. New Jersey won at the end and will represent the East well in the World Series, but we leave as Connecticut champs, New England champs and Eastern runner-up. We leave with our heads held high.”
The script did not include falling behind 6-0 after one inning. Mewha has bloodlines to qualify as a big-game pitcher — her brother John led Fitch High to the 2012 Class L baseball state title — and deserved a better start. Mystic made three errors against New Jersey’s first four batters, failing to register possible outs on tags on the basepaths. Mewha also walked three but allowed just two hits.
It could have been worse, however, as New Jersey’s powerful No. 3 batter Haley Hewitt, on her second at-bat of the frame, just got under the ball and skied out to the warning track with the bases loaded.
“She missed it by an inch and it could have been 10-0 which would have been tough for them to overcome,” New Jersey manager Gary Woodruff said.
“At 6-0, I felt Mystic was still in the game if they could tighten their defense. I saw them hit all week and knew they could hit their way back into the game. Credit (Mewha) for keeping us down after that because she hasn’t pitched many major games.”
Mystic tacked on two runs against winning pitcher Jacquie Lesher, who had retired nine straight to start the game, in the fourth. Nalissa Amar and Delaporta singled to right with no out. Taber reached on a hit to load the bases before Brooke Arruda drove in two with a single. New Jersey stranded the bases loaded to escape further damage.
In Mystic’s fifth, Nicole Vignato came off the bench to lead off with a single. Delaporta walked with one out and Taber hit an infield single to load the bases. Arruda’s sacrifice fly and Mackenzie Aldridge’s two-run double made it 7-5, and now all thoughts of a quick mercy-rule vanished.
Mystic’s defense also came alive, squashing a New Jersey rally in the bottom of the fifth. Mystic turned a New Jersey sacrifice bunt into a double play as Taber, the first baseman, fired to Arruda at third to nail the runner trying for an extra base.
“We figured we’d need amazing defense with our number one and two pitchers out,” Arruda said. “We finally put it together after the first-inning mistakes.”
Mystic pulled to within 7-6 with a run in the sixth. Vignato and Delaporta delivered the key hits. The locals had clearly stolen momentum, further illustrated by gunning down a run at the plate as Woods, the center fielder, quickly retrieved a double at the fence, fired to shortstop Aldridge, who relayed home to catcher Olivia Knotts to nail the runner trying to score from second.
New Jersey, though, capitalized on Mewha’s three walks and a hit batter in the inning to tack on two runs to lead 9-6 going into the top of the seventh.
Mystic, though, had one more comeback. Arruda walked to lead off. After a fly out, Knotts reached on an infield hit. Taylor Kenyon followed with a shot to right which was not caught for a two-run double. Pinch-runner Olivia Watts moved to third on a wild pitch, but Hulitt, the relief pitcher, retired the final two outs on a groundout back to her and a strikeout, leaving Mystic 60 feet from tying the game to determine who would board a Saturday morning plane for a 3,000-mile trip to Washington.
“We all wanted this so bad and kept fighting and fighting until it was not possible to fight any more,” said Arruda, whose walkoff, three-run homer in the ninth inning gave Mystic a 9-6 win in the New England final Wednesday. “We’re down but we’re very proud. I wouldn’t want to play with any other group of girls.”
So, the nucleus of the squad which repeated as Connecticut Junior League champs, moves on to perhaps Senior League (15 to 16 year olds) and varsity softball glory in the future.
Taber beamed with pride, talking about the squad and can only imagine what might have happened if Mystic didn’t need to use its two pitchers while losing its first tournament game 6-1 to host District 4 Wednesday morning, which forced a winner-take-all game between Mystic and the hosts Wednesday afternoon.
“That’s how it goes in tournament play,” Taber said. “You’d like to have your ace ready for the ultimate game but you have to take care of business to get there.”
Still, defeating host District 4, which as Regional host receives an automatic bid to the regionals and is allowed to select All-Stars from its entire District 4, to win the New Englands will remain a special memory and achievement.
“We draw from 20,000 people in Mystic/Groton and they drew from a million in New Haven County,” Taber said. “They were like a regional travel team, so to beat them in the regional opener and win the New England title from them, it’s a very big deal.”