BRISTOL – One game is a small sample size, however Manchester's Little League team appears to be one of the most well-balanced groups in this year's New England Region Tournament at the Little League East Regional.
After finishing with a perfect record through district, sectional and state tournament play, Manchester beat Essex Town Vermont, 3-1, on Monday, thanks to timely hitting and impressive pitching.
A Ryan Gorman two-run single in the sixth inning gave Connecticut much-needed insurance, while key strikeouts from starter Eli Bucko and reliever Jacob Budarz prevented Vermont from breaking the score open.
“We knew that competition was going to go up once we got here,” Manchester manager Rob Rastelli said. “The games we saw in the state final were three of the toughest teams we saw. All good teams left, we're just going to have to fight through.”
Bucko has been Manchester's ace this summer as the lanky, right-hander has shut down seemingly every opponent he's encountered during the postseason.
In its 10-0 win the Connecticut state championship, Bucko allowed one hit and picked up five strikeouts. On Monday, Bucko set 10 Vermont batters down on strikes in another one-hit outing.
When Vermont put the pressure on late in the game after Bucko left the mound, Manchester still managed to limit the damage.
“We kind of put ourselves in a bit of a situation but we have the arms to dig ourselves out,” Rastelli said.
At the plate, Manchester has just as many weapons with Bucko, Budarz and Arlen Peyman rounding out it's top three in the batting order. Against Vermont, Budarz was inches away from a homerun with a double off the top of the outfield fence.
In the state championship game, seven Manchester batters compiled hits in the mercy-rule shortened contest.
“We have some pretty good bats here too that seem to always come through for us,” Rastelli said.
With Monday's victory advancing Manchester to the winner's bracket semifinal, the squad gets a couple of days off to prepare for a game with a trip to Williamsport on the line.
“We’ll keep working on the little things,” Rastelli said. “Freshen up the baserunning, use some cage time to make sure the eyes are sharp and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
A battle with Peabody West Massachusetts awaits Manchester as Massachusetts beat Maine 3-0 on Monday to move on.
Massachusetts may be the most battle-tested of any team in the bracket as it lost twice in its state tournament. A 6-5 win against Pittsfield American in the championship game punched its ticket to Bristol, following two losses in its first two games.
Peabody West was the last Massachusetts team to qualify for the Little League World Series when it advanced in 2009.
Manchester looks to be the first team from Connecticut to make it since Fairfield American in 2017. Rhode Island has represented the New England region in five of the previous six Little League World Series events.
First pitch for Thursday's game at Leon J. Breen Field is set for 1 p.m.
Ryan Ames can be reached at 860-801-5094 or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.