CHESHIRE — There is no question Cheshire is the baseball team to beat this season — in the SCC and beyond.
The only question: Will the Rams begin the postseason without their No. 1 pitcher?
The defending Class LL state champions won their 18th straight game Wednesday night, avenging their only loss of the season with a 9-0 rout of Amity. Cheshire, 18-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state media poll and in the Class LL playoff rankings, will finish the regular season Friday with a home game against Shelton.
In dominating Amity, however, ace pitcher Matt Downing exited early with soreness in his pitching arm. And while the senior southpaw didn’t seem too concerned, his condition going forward was the only possible negative to an otherwise positive night in Orange.
Downing, who improved to 4-1 on the season with an 0.50 ERA, was his dominating self in the long-awaited rematch with Amity, which beat Cheshire and Downing 1-0 in the first game of the season on April 1.
On Wednesday night, Downing had struck out four Amity hitters over three-plus innings and allowed just three hits. But after throwing his 64th pitch, Downing looked into the Cheshire dugout at pitching coach Dom Severino, who immediately knew something wasn’t right.
Downing called Severino out to the mound, and after a brief discussion, the pitcher and pitching coach walked back to the dugout together.
Just like that, Downing’s night was over. Ian Battipaglia finished what Downing started, tossing 2 2/3 scoreless innings of his own.
“Honestly, I think that big rest (Cheshire sent eight batters to the plate and scored three runs in the top of the fourth inning to extend its lead to 7-0) and the weather being a little colder contributed to it,” Downing said.
“It wasn’t like a pop or anything, or a ‘one moment’ kind of thing. It was just sort of gradual, and it got to a point where I didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t think it was worth to push through it, especially with SCCs and states coming up. I think I’ll be fine.”
“He looked in (the dugout) and we knew something wasn’t right,” Cheshire head coach Mike Lussier said. “I need someone who knows to look at it.”
So, the Rams must now wait to see when Downing will be back on the mound.
“We are going to take a look at it; I’m not going to assume anything yet,” Lussier said. “If he needs rest, he’ll get it (during the SCC Tournament). But I’m praying.”
“I’m hoping it’s just a tweak, muscle spasm or something,” Lussier added. “I’ve told these guys to be honest, I don’t want any heroes. He told me, ‘Nah, I can’t.’ And I said, ‘Not a problem.’”
Cheshire catcher Matt Costello was as surprised as anyone that Downing was forced to leave early. Costello was behind the plate Wednesday night when Downing started rubbing his elbow after throwing a pitch in the fourth inning.
“Honestly, I thought he was doing great up until that one pitch,” Costello said. “I thought (his elbow) was maybe a little sore, maybe he was going to tell the coach after the inning. But he called the coach out and just pointed to his elbow.”
With the SCC Tournament starting Monday, Downing wasn’t scheduled to throw again until after the weekend. And while Lussier mentioned a visit to the doctor isn’t a bad idea, Downing has been down this road before.
Downing missed his entire freshman season after suffering an avulsion fracture in his left elbow. His experience talking with doctors taught him the difference between a serious injury and soreness. He said what he feels now isn’t the same as what he went through three years ago.
“For right now, I’m just going to ice it and do what I need to do,” said Downing, who’s given up just 19 hits in 42 innings. “I’m going to take a few days off. It’s nothing different than what I normally feel, just more.
“I’ve pitched through soreness, not pain,” he added. “There is a difference, and it’s usually fine the day or so after.”
With or without Downing, the Rams will go into the SCC Tournament as the top seed. After 18 straight wins and rolling through the regular season, Cheshire will have a bull’s eye on its back.
“Last year, we were good, but we were still underdogs,” Ian Battipaglia said. “This year, it’s a different path. Every team is going to come out and try to beat us. Beating us can make or break a team’s season.”
“The SCC is a meat-grinder league,” Lussier said. “We are constantly beating each other up. On any given day, any one of us can win. I don’t care 0-15 or 15-0: If it’s an SCC team, look out.
“To win 18 straight games is just tremendous,” added Lussier, a long-time assistant who took up the head-coaching reins this year from Bill Mrowka. “I honestly don’t have words for it right now. I’m very happy for the kids. All the credit goes to them. We just get them ready for battle, point them in the right direction between the lines and say, ‘play.’
“I did not see this coming at all.”
Just how loaded is the SCC? Last year, Cheshire didn’t even win the SCC Housatonic Division and was bounced in the second round of the SCC tourney by Guilford. The Rams lost five SCC games during the regular season and tournament.
Yes, the Rams rebounded nicely, winning their first state championship since 1993.
But winning three SCC Tournament games in four days is no easy task.
“There have been years when we’ve lost in the SCC Tournament and won a state title,” Amity head coach Sal Coppola said. “The SCC Tournament is great; I love it. I call it a mini state tournament, because you are playing against such good teams. It’s a great primer for the state tournament.”
And as coach of the only team to have beaten Cheshire this season, Cappola knows any team will have to be at its best to beat the Rams again.
“Last year’s (Cheshire) team was obviously good, but this year’s team is a veteran team that plays with attitude and confidence,” Cappola said. “1 through 9 through the lineup, they all hit. They make all the plays. They’re a tough team to beat.”
A healthy Downing would make Cheshire even that much tougher.
Downing leads a deep pitching staff. Mike Kozlowski has thrown two no-hitters this spring and is 5-0 with a 0.37 ERA in six starts. Rob Roles is also 5-0 with a 3.68 ERA. Roles has worked five games, starting three.
There’s also Joe Sabo, who is 2-0 with a 1.61 in six appearances, three of them starts. Battipaglia has yet to give up a run in his eight innings of relief work.
“We have a pretty good pitching staff, but (Downing) is our ace, and it would be a tough loss,” said Costello. “I hope we don’t lose him, but I’m confident in this team no matter what.”