BRISTOL, Conn. – It’s official: Chris Wright is back.
He made that loud and clear on Saturday, delivering a game-tying two-run double in the bottom of the first inning, then firing 3 1/3 innings of shutout relief as Cumberland American Little League edged Andover National Little League, 5-3, in the New England regional tournament opener for both teams at Breen Field.
Sidelined by a broken left ankle sustained sliding during Cumberland’s June 17 practice, Wright missed the District IV tournament and rejoined the team for the state tourney. But he hadn’t returned to the mound until Saturday.
The left-hander didn’t miss a beat.
Saturday’s matchup pitted two elite offenses against each other. Andover, making its first trip to Bristol since 1988, averaged 11.3 runs per game while going 15-1 against Massachusetts foes.
Cumberland also averaged 11.3 runs during its trek through Rhode Island competition, going 9-0 with six mercy-rule victories and registering an average victory margin of nearly nine runs.
Pitching and defense was the difference on Saturday, when Andover committed four errors that led to Cumberland’s three unearned runs.
“Typically our defense is a strong suit and we’re able to pick up extra outs as opposed to give extra outs,” Andover manager Paul Finn said. “We’ll come back.”
Said Belisle, “We take advantage of people’s mistakes. That’s the type of team we are.”
The Massachusetts champions loaded the bases with one out in the top of the first, with the first runner, Daniel Walsh, reaching on a fielding error by first baseman Wright. Cumberland starter Max Hanuschak snapped off a curveball to fan Sam Conte for the second out, but Cedric Gillette followed with a two-run double over the head of right fielder Colin Cannata.
Cumberland answered with a clutch two-out knock of its own in the bottom of the first. After Connor Mastin and Hanuschak struck out with two on against Andover starter Gillette, Wright delivered both runners with a double off the left-field fence to atone for his error.
“It was an outside pitch and it was high,” Wright said. “I just went with it. Luckily it was far enough to be a double.”
Andrew Selima led off the top of the third by launching Hanuschak’s first offering well beyond the right-field fence to put Andover on top, 3-2.
With two outs, Hanuschak was relieved by Wright.
“When Max was reaching the pitch count of 65, I looked at [coach Matt Wright, Chris’ father] and I said, ‘You want to go with Chris?’” Belisle said. “He said, ‘Your call.’ I said, ‘No-brainer for me.’”
That Wright would return as quickly as he did was far from a no-brainer. The injury, which Belisle called “severe,” was initially supposed to keep Wright out for six-to-eight weeks. He only needed five to recover.
After throwing in practice for the past week, Wright took the mound on Saturday for the first time since twirling a one-hit shutout against Belisle’s regular-season team in a June playoff game.
“That’s why I know what he’s got,” Belisle said with a smile. “I thought this was the best he’s looked [since the injury]. He’d be the first one to admit that.”
Andover had no answer for Wright, who surrendered two hits and struck out four in his 40-pitch outing.
“I just went out there and did my best,” Wright said.
Wright got some help from his defense in the top of the fifth, when left fielder Hanuschak snared a fly ball off the bat of Conte and doubled up Michael Reilly, who led off with a single, at first base with a strong throw to Cannata.
“Our defense prevailed today,” Belisle said. “That big double play by Hanuschak was the turning point in the game. That was a rocket that could have easily put [runners] at second and third with no outs, but it turned into a double play.”
Cumberland packed the sacks against Reilly without the benefit of a hit in the bottom of the fifth. Finn summoned Conte, who was greeted by Hanuschak’s sharply hit RBI single to right. Conte then plunked Wright with an inside curveball, and Conor Lavallee added a run-scoring fielder’s choice.
Cumberland resumes pool play on Monday at 8 p.m. against New Hampshire’s Goffstown Junior Baseball Little League. Belisle’s club faces Connecticut champ and reigning New England titlist Fairfield American Little League on Tuesday at 1 p.m., then concludes pool play against Vermont’s Barre Community Little League on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
No matter what transpires, Wright has already lived up to his word.
“He made a promise that if we did get to Bristol, he’d be there for us,” Belisle said. “He’s special. You saw it on the mound today and you it at the plate.
“What you see is what you get with Chris Wright.”
Andover National 201 000 – 3-5-4
Cumberland American 200 03X – 5-3-1
Cedric Gillette, Michael Reilly (4), Sam Conte (5), Andrew Selima (5) and Andrew Selima, Nathan Abbott (4). Max Hanuschak, Chris Wright (3) and Ryan McCormick.