N.E. Tourney Notebook/Westport holding a pair of aces
In its path to the state title, Westport relied heavily on its No. 1A-1B duo of Harry Azadian and Chad Knight on the mound, while sprinkling in innings from Max Popken and Charlie Roof. That formula held true through the first three New England regional pool-play games, with Azadian and Knight logging 13 of the 17 innings.
Having all but locked up the top seed in the semifinals, Popken got a rare pitching start on Wednesday against Newton, Mass. The right-hander surrendered a two-run home run and a walk in two-thirds of an inning, throwing 20 pitches. Roof earned the win, allowing just one run in 2 1/3 innings.
Azadian and Knight's dominance has allowed coach Tim Rogers to cut down his visits to the mound and, more importantly, has kept the duo available longer because of low pitch counts.
"It's been helpful, for sure," Rogers said on Monday. "On the other hand, we want to make sure everybody stays sharp."
In its first 16 games this summer, dating back to the start of District 2 pool play, Westport has allowed just 25 runs.
"One of the things we've talked about since we started is our depth," Rogers said following a 10-4 win over Newton. "We haven't had to use it all that much. Certainly Harry and Chad have logged a majority of the innings, but we know what these guys can do. We know what Charlie and Max and Alex (Reiner) can do."
THE DAY AFTER PERFECTION: With a chance to solidify a spot in the semifinals and a likely top seed on Monday, Azadian was tabbed to start against Rye, N.H. That, however, wasn't the only pressure riding riding on the ace. Azadian was trying to back up a perfect game pitched by Knight and Popken in an 8-0 defeat of Saco, Maine, a day earlier.
Azadian responded admirably in a 12-2 victory, shortened to five innings because of the mercy rule. He struck out eight, surrendered just four singles and allowed two runs (one earned) in three innings.
"I felt like I was throwing pretty well," Azadian said. "I left a couple pitches down the plate. ... They hit me around a little bit. I felt like I was throwing hard."
Azadian didn't let the pressure of pitching after the perfect game affect him. When asked how a start like that can be followed up, he said, smiling, "It's tough."
THE TEAM TO BEAT: Westport steamrolled through District 2 play, outscoring opponents 63-8 in seven games, then went unbeaten in five games to win Section 1 and the state. Although the stakes have increased as the summer's progressed, Westport's dominance carried over to the New England regional. The team won its four pool play games handily, taking apart Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts by a combined 39-8.
Now the No. 1 seed and playing Saturday for the New England championship, Westport is the prohibitive favorite to get to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. Does the team feel the same?
"All of us are great teams. ... We're all capable of winning," first baseman Chris Drbal said following Westport's 12-2 win over Rye, N.H., on Monday. "But I think if we try our hardest, we can win."
The Little Leaguers admit that they haven't felt pressure as the region's lone unbeaten.
"We pretty much control our destiny now," shortstop Ricky Offenberg said on Wednesday.
THE BIG INNING: Although Westport's displayed some power at the plate, homering five times in pool play, Rogers isn't satisfied with his team's production at the plate. The all-stars have, however, shown a knack for the big inning. They've twice posted six- and five-run frames and had an eight-run inning on Wednesday.
"We've talked all week about our bats, and they've been inconsistent to say the least," Rogers said.
SHOWING THE SMARTS: Westport has been particularly aggressive on the basepaths, often taking the extra base on hits and coming home on wild pitches. In a 12-2 win over New Hampshire on Monday, the all-stars scored runs on three of Rye's seven wild pitches. Rogers praised his team's speed following the game, saying, "We have a lot of instinctive baserunners."
Drbal, who scored two runs in the win, including the first on a wild pitch, said the practice that the team's put in on the basepaths has paid off.
"I know we're all very agile and we're very smart on the basepaths," he said. "I think we're a really good team speed-wise."
Through pool play, Westport has displayed a knack for instinctive baseball, in both its baserunning and fielding (just three errors, one unearned run in four games). Rogers knows that those abilities will only benefit his team.
"All those things matter," Rogers said. "We do those things well."
CONNECTICUT REPRESENTS: Connecticut has had 13 teams reach the Little League World Series since 1957, including three in the last five years.
North End LL of Bridgeport was the first to qualify in 1957, followed by Darien in 1958, Stratford Original in 1963, Windsor Locks in 1965, Pop Smith of New Haven in 1974, Forestville of Bristol in 1976, Stamford Federal in 1981, Stamford American in 1983, McCabe Waters of Bristol in 1984, Trumbull National in 1989, Shelton National in 2008 and Fairfield American in 2010 and 2012.
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