The tension was mounting in a game with a distinct playoff feel. A loss to Wilton, which was higher in the FCIAC standings, would have put a dent in the Staples baseball team's playoff hopes.
But Alec Johnson, the Wreckers' third pitcher in the seventh inning, worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the inning to preserve a critical 5-3 win over the Warriors on Monday at home.
"From now on, every game is a playoff game," Johnson said. "It felt really good out there. There was a lot of intensity, a lot of focus and we were able to come out and get the big win."
A loss would have effectively dropped Staples (9-6, 7-6) three games behind Wilton, but the Wreckers are now tied with the Warriors (9-6, 7-6) for the final FCIAC playoff spot, and own the tiebreaker.
Staples has won four of its last five games and according to coach Jack McFarland, the turnaround can be attributed to the Wreckers avoiding early deficits.
"When you're down 5- and 6-0 and you're trying to come back, the climb up the mountain sometimes takes so much out of you that you never quite get there," McFarland said. "We've changed that mentality. The pitchers are throwing
strikes now, keeping us in the game and letting us get up."
The Wreckers got a solid effort from starter Chris Speer, who allowed three runs and five hits over 6 1/3 innings. He walked two and struck out two.
"Chris ran out of gas a little bit toward the end, but he's a fighter," Johnson said. "He's a big part of this team."
Staples scored two runs in the second inning to grab a 2-0 lead. Noah Yokoi walked and Eli Andrew singled, and the runners moved up on a wild pitch. Frank Vartuli flied out to right fielder Scott Shouvlin, who made a strong throw home. It appeared there would be a close play at the plate, however, the ball skipped past catcher Alex Jacobsen, allowing two runs to score.
Staples then extended its lead to 5-0 in the third on consecutive RBI singles by Matt Smith, Yokoi and Andrew.
Speer made only one mistake, giving up a long two-run homer to Andrew Jacobsen in the fifth that pulled the Warriors within 5-3. Only one of the three runs allowed by Speer was earned.
"(Chris) was great today," McFarland said. "The home run was the fourth out. That should have never happened to begin with. He did what he was supposed to do. It's a 3-2 pitch, he pitched to contact.
"The kid makes a great swing. Besides that, (Speer) had them off balance, a lot easy outs, a lot of little short pop ups, groundballs, a great pickoff move at first. He did everything he had to do."
Given the importance of the game, McFarland went batter by batter in the seventh. Speer, who threw 105 pitches, was pulled after giving up singles to Shouvlin and James Meaney. Greg Salamone was summoned from the bullpen, but faced only one batter, walking Andrew Jacobsen to load the bases.
"We were not going to lose this game on a base on balls," McFarland said. "Whoever's coming in had to throw strikes. If they hit it in the trees, they hit it in the trees."
Johnson ran the court full to his first batter, but struck out Will Bruschi swinging on a high fastball, then got Ben Rappaport to fly out to fairly deep center field to secure the win.
Bob Birge is a freelance writer
STAPLES 5, WILTON 3
WILTON 000 030 0 -- 3 7 1
STAPLES 023 000 X -- 5 6 1
Records: Wilton 9-6, 7-6 FCIAC; Staples 9-6, 7-6.
Batteries: W -- Andrew Jacobson (L) and Alex Jacobson; S -- Chris Speer (W, 2-1), Greg Salamone (7), Alec Johnson (7, S) and Noah Yokoi. Highlights: W -- An. Jacobson hit a two-run home run. S -- Eli Andrew had two hits and one RBI. Matt Smith hit a RBI-single.