CIAC BASEBALL: As stakes rose, Cheshire’s strong hand was dearly missing an ace

CIAC BASEBALL: As stakes rose, Cheshire’s strong hand was dearly missing an ace

WATERBURY — For the Cheshire high school baseball team, a repeat as Class LL state champions was in reach.

However, without ace left-hander Matt Downing, the Rams had an uphill battle in the Class LL tournament.

Downing, who injured his throwing arm in the team’s final game of the regular season, did not pitch the rest of the year, leaving Cheshire without one of the best pitchers in the state.

“Of course, it’s tough,” Cheshire head coach Mike Lussier said. “You lose one of your ace pitchers and you’ve got to piece things together.”

After losing Downing, who is heading to Northeastern, the Rams relied more heavily on juniors Mike Kozlowski and Joseph Sabo as well as on seniors Rob Roles and Ian Battipaglia.

The Rams pitching was still elite, as they won 25 games in a row, but Downing’s production and mound presence (3-1, 0.88 ERA in seven appearances) was irreplaceable.

Kozlowski, undefeated on the season at 9-0 until Cheshire’s 3-0 loss to Staples in the semifinals on Tuesday night, when he pitched five innings-plus, pitched five hitless innings in the quarterfinal win over No. 8 Enfield. 

“(Kozlowski) is the kid who wants the ball,” Lussier said after the loss to Staples. “When I went to take the ball from him — I don’t want to hurt him; he has a great future in front of him.”

Kozlowski was solid on Tuesday against Staples, tossing five innings of six-hit, three-run ball. However, it was not enough to out-duel Gatorade Connecticut State Player of the Year Chad Knight.

“We helped him a couple times, but he’s a good pitcher,” Lussier said of Knight. “We haven’t scored a run since the second inning against Enfield. So you figure that’s 12 innings we didn’t get a run.”

Still, one can only wonder if Cheshire’s fate would have been different had Downing been able to take the mound at some point in the playoffs.

Would it have given Kozlowski a chance to rest against Enfield? Or would Downing have started the semifinal game for an all-time showdown with Knight?

“It was really tough,” Downing said of not being able to pitch in Cheshire’s playoff run, though he did remain in the batting lineup as a positional player. “But going into it I knew I had a whole team behind me. It wasn’t individual at all.

“Especially with Mike (Kozlowski) throwing on the mound, I knew he was going to give it his all. He ended up coming up short, but it happens. It could’ve been anybody.”

Ian Battipaglia was stellar in relief, striking out three and allowing just one hit over the final two frames against Staples.

And as happy as he was with the performance of his pitchers, Lussier knew that having Downing available would have been a major game changer.

“It’s not saying that we have bad pitchers,” Lussier said. “But it’s just that another pitcher that you can throw in your rotation that helps out.”

So, if the Rams had won, would Downing have been available Saturday?

“To be honest with you, we weren’t looking towards Saturday,” Lussier replied. “We we’re going game by game because we started the year going game by game and we were going to continue to do that. We didn’t want to change anything.

“We kept with the same practice — everything the same way — because it worked for 25 straight games in a row. We were more worried about today. Because without today, there is no Saturday.”

Lussier is right. There was no reason to look forward unless the Rams had won.

Regardless, Downing’s contributions over the past two years will not go forgotten. He was an integral part in two stellar seasons in Cheshire, one that saw a state championship in 2018 and a 25-game winning streak and SCC conference title in 2019.

“It’s been an awesome ride,” Downing said. “I can’t thank enough of these guys for just an awesome experience playing high school baseball. Playing with all these guys has been something really special to me. I’m never going to forget it the rest of my life.”


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