MERIDEN — Here’s how the first inning of the first game of the 2020 Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League season went Tuesday night for the Record-Journal Expos at Ceppa Field:
Three errors and two runs allowed in the top half, nothing more than a walk in their first ups in the home half.
First inning, first game. First thought? Flush it.
The Expos did just that. They turned things around as sneaky quick as an A.J. Hendrickson fastball and snapped into the sort of form that put them of the league standings last summer. While Hendrickson settled down on the hill, Expos hitters found the groove with timely hits, and it added up to a 6-3 victory over Rainbow Graphics.
Hendrickson went the distance, allowing just three hits and one earned run. He struck out 11 and finished with a flourish, fanning the side to end it in the seventh.
“I kind of showed up a little late today, so I didn’t have as much (warmup) time as I probably needed, but I’ve always, as the game goes on, loosen up and feel better,” said Hendrickson, who retired all but four of the 22 batters he faced after inning.
In the meantime, first baseman Will Kszywanos halved the early 2-0 deficit with a RBI single in the second inning before third baseman Jason Sullivan and catcher Mike Gulino pushed the Expos ahead 3-2 with RBI doubles in the third.
Kyle Hartenstein provided more breathing room one inning later with a bomb down the right field line that the Rainbow Graphics outfielder tried to play into a ground-rule double when the ball rolled under low-lying branches of a tree.
The umpires didn’t call a ground-rule double, though. Kszywanos, aboard with his second hit of the evening, kept running and so did Hartenstein, and the play went in the books as a two-run homer.
A bases-loaded walk drawn by Joe Gulino in the fifth inning pushed the final margin to 6-3 after Rainbow Graphics had touched Hendrickson for their final run in the top half.
That run was the product of a hit batsman, a stolen base and a RBI single by Tyler Repoli of Rainbow Graphics. After that, Hendrickson set down the final eight, five on strikeouts.
“A.J. can throw. He’s got nasty stuff; he’s always fun to catch,” said Mike Gulino, who caught Hendrickson at Maloney and with Meriden’s Post 45 American Legion team. “Every pitch was working. He spotted up his fastball, changeup was falling off the table and, curveball, he found that control.
“He had to figure it out a little bit; we started moving all his pitches in,” Gulino added. “Once we started doing that, they didn’t stand a chance.”
“I was kind of flying open a lot,” Hendrickson said of his first-inning issues. “I was really focused on staying closed through my release. Mike’s awesome back there. He always knows exactly what to say to get you to throw the right pitch and make the right adjustments.”
And that, right there, is sort of the secret sauce of Meriden’s current incarnation of Greater Hartford Twilight players. Tuesday’s starting lineup also featured shortstop Sebby Grignano and second baseman Hector Gonzalez in the middle of the infield, and Joe Gulino, Jon Walter and Hartenstein in the outfield, left to right. Jack Rich was the designated hitter.
All of these players are in their early 20s. They grew up playing together and it shows. The Expos have that good loose vibe that emanates from camaraderie. They made a habit of come-from-behind victories last summer and no one was particularly rattled by that ugly top of the first on Tuesday.
“We’ve been playing together for a long time,” said Mike Gulino. “This team gels really well together.”
Pitcher/manager Charlie Hesseltine, the Expos elder statesman at age 35, jokes that his role involves nothing more than filling out a lineup card. If so, it’s because he’s been around the game long enough and recognizes simple chemistry.
“I’m a good 10 to almost 15 years older than all these guys on the team,” Hesseltine said. “The team I grew up with, we played together in this league and after all of them stopped playing, I’m the last one remaining from that club. These guys, they play great together. They know each other’s strengths and weakness, how to pick each other up. I let them pretty much do their own thing.”
On Tuesday, it was another one for the win column.