The Westport Little League team needed to get a good hard look at Coginchaug starting pitcher James Salemme in its state final opener at Southington's Recreational Park before being completely comfortable at the plate.
Once the second at-bats arrived, Westport settled in and began smashing hits around the ballpark, cruising to another win in what is quickly turning into a dream season.
Max Popken put the exclamation point on Westport's five-run fourth inning with a two-run home run that propelled Westport to a 8-2 victory over Coginchaug Saturday afternoon in Game 1 of a best-of-three series to determine Connecticut's representative in the New England Regionals. The two teams will meet Sunday with Westport just 18 outs away from its first state title.
"The first time through (Salemme) did a good job," Westport manager Tim Rogers said. "The bottom of the order hit the ball well, (Coginchaug) just made some great plays. Finally (the hits) started dropping; a couple of miscues helped; the bats came alive as the game progressed."
Westport needed the offensive outburst after falling behind early. A throwing error on a double play ball allowed Coginchaug to plate two in the first inning before Westport had a chance to breathe in the most pressured of circumstances.
"They might have been nervous," Rogers said. "That's probably a little true. That was an uncharacteristic mistake by us. I think some nerves got in a little bit but they should be out of the way now. They eventually relaxed and realized it was just another baseball game."
Mistakes also got Coginchaug in trouble in the bottom of the fourth inning and Westport took full advantage. A pair of errors put runners on base before Drew Rogers got Westport on the board with an RBI single. Chris Drbal then doubled in a pair to give Westport a 3-2 lead. Popken then extended the lead with a shot over the center-field fence.
"It was a 3-1 count and I was looking for a fastball up that I could clobber and he gave me one so I took advantage," Popken said.
Chad Knight was stellar on the mound for Westport. Knight pitched 5 ï»¿2/3 innings, allowing two unearned runs on five hits while striking out 14 Coginchaug batters. Harry Azadian -- Sunday's starter -- struck out a batter in relief on three pitches to seal the victory with runners on first and second.
"(The kids) weren't ready to hit like they had been in the past," Coginchaug coach Ken Vallone said. "(Knight) pitched well, he was in his groove. We had things going our way until the fourth inning; we made three or four errors that opened the door for (Westport), and once that happens it's all over."
Westport scored three more times in the bottom of the fifth to put the game away. Drew Rogers singled in a pair with the bases loaded, and a run scored on a wild pitch.
"That was huge," Tim Rogers said. "That was a good time for it. Drbal contributed immensely like he always does. Charlie (Roof) had two hits. We just have a lot of confidence with the whole lineup that we feel no matter who is up they can do the job."
Coginchaug now has its back against the wall and must rebound quickly. Ace John John Jose will start Sunday in what figures to be a dual with Azadian.
"(Jose) throws like Knight, it should be a good pitching battle tomorrow," Vallone said. "I foresee a really low scoring game but hopefully we can be on the other end of it."
Ryan Lacey is a freelance writer
Westport 8, Coginchaug 2
COGINCHAUG 000 300--3 3 4
WESTPORT 000 53X--8 11 1
Records: Coginchaug 12-2, Westport 11-0.
Batteries: C--James Salemme (L), Ryan Cross and Ryan Genest ; W--Chad Knight (W), Harry Azadian and Matt Stone. Highlights: W--Drew Rogers went 2-for-3 with 3 RBI. Max Popken went 2-for-4 with a home run. Chad Knight pitched 5ï»¿2/3 innings, struck out 14 and allowed 5 hits and a walk.