NEW BRITAIN - Josleen Rivera needed to catch a break.
After retiring 12 straight Simsbury batters, Rivera watched an error turn into a bases loaded, no-out jam in the top of the seventh with the New Britain softball team holding onto a 4-1 lead on Wednesday afternoon.
With the go-ahead run at the plate, and the Hurricanes’ seven-game winning streak on the line, Rivera forced a fly ball into center field that was guaranteed to push a run across for the Trojans, but a baserunning blunder at first base turned into the break Rivera needed, as Simsbury’s Madi Goldfarlo was doubled up at first to complete an obscure double play to turn a potentially game-changing rally into a 4-2 win for New Britain (12-4).
“All the pressure was off my shoulders,” Rivera said after the double play. “My defense was paying attention. Then I was able to focus on the last batter.”
Rivera struck out the last batter looking, her sixth strikeout of the day, to finish with just one earned run on two hits to continue her dominant stretch that has led the Hurricanes on their recent surge. She wasn’t at her best, issuing four walks, but she got the big outs when she needed to.
“Josleen struggled a bit, but she’s been phenomenal,” head coach Joel Simmone said. “She is pitching the best I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching softball.”
The Trojans’ run in the seventh would have been huge had it not been for New Britain’s Val Hernandez, who smacked a two-run home run down the left field line in the bottom of the third to give the Hurricanes a 4-1 lead. From there, both offenses went cold and were held scoreless until the pressure-packed seventh.
“That was the game-winner,” Simmone said. “That was it. That was the big blow of the day.”
New Britain appeared to be in for a big day on offense when they struck first in the bottom of the second with two runs against Simsbury starter Brooke Witkin. Liana Silva continued her hot hitting with a leadoff double to left, and after Hernandez was plunked by a pitch, Naishka Perez drove in Silva with single to left center.
Witkin appeared to be primed to escape further trouble after back-to-back strikeouts of Nataly Hernandez and Paola Martinez, but Rivera salvaged another run from the rally with an infield single up the middle to score Val Hernandez and give New Britain a 2-0 lead.
The Trojans (8-8) struck back in the third after Rivera briefly lost the plate, walking Jess King and Megan Broderick to bring up the top of the order with nobody out. Three stolen bases by Simsbury advanced the runners to second and third, and the bases filled up after an infield single by Erin Jennings on a 3-2 count.
Rivera responded with a big strikeout for the first out, then forced Witkin to lift a shallow fly ball to left field, just deep enough to plate the Trojans’ first run of the game, and the last until the final inning, as Rivera found her zone for a dominant three-inning stretch.
“I was feeling a little pressured,” Rivera said. “I just cleared my head and focused on working ahead. After that, I felt great. I did what I had to do and had my defense behind me.”
Nursing a three-run lead, Rivera settled down in the circle and cruised through Simsbury’s lineup, retiring 12 batters in a row while allowing just two balls to leave the infield during that stretch. In a dominant sixth inning, Rivera faced the Trojans’ two, three and four hitters and recorded a pair of strikeouts and a weak pop-up back to the circle.
Rivera’s efficiency was needed for the Hurricanes. The New Britain bats went quiet as well, as Witkin retired 10 in a row after the Hurricanes’ two-run third inning, including four outs recorded by strikeout.
Rivera was still in cruise control heading into the seventh, but a seemingly harmless ground ball broke momentum when first baseman Val Hernandez couldn’t come up with the weak bouncer, allowing the leadoff batter to reach. A walk and a single later, and the Trojans had the go-ahead run at the plate, with the bases loaded and nobody out.
Then Rivera settled down like she did after the bottom of the third, with a little help from Simsbury’s baserunners, who ran themselves out of a game-tying or game-winning rally.
“That was huge,” Simmone said. “Our girls were heads-up and we got it done.”
The win was the second in a row for New Britain that ended with more tension than necessary, as the Hurricanes turned a cozy 6-1 lead into a tight 6-3 win against Berlin after an eventful seventh inning.
“I’m happy, but I just don’t like how we’re finishing games in the seventh inning,” Simmone said. “That’s two games in a row where we struggled to close it out. When you play really good teams, you’re in trouble. We were lucky we got out of that. But I’ll take it. A win is a win.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org