BERLIN - Facing a 9-0 deficit after allowing five runs in the fourth inning, Southington North could have easily have lost to Southington South and accepted elimination from the Little League 12U District 5 tournament.
Instead, Southington North battled to the last out before falling 9-5 on Tuesday afternoon at Petti Field in Berlin.
North brought the tying run to the on-deck circle in the sixth but came up short for answers to Southington South’s dual threat in Joe Gratta, who pitched five innings and struck out 11 while adding three hits and three runs scored at the plate to bounce South’s crosstown rival from the tournament after beating them 11-10 in the first round.
“Joe is one of the best kids that I’ve ever coached,” Southington South head coach Curtis Migliore said. “He’s all heart, hustle and determination. He’s everything you want in a player.”
The win for Southington South secures a date with Farmington Thursday at Recreation Park in Southington at 5:45 p.m. The winner will advance to the tournament final.
Gratta wasted no time sending Southington South on its way to an early lead, drilling the first pitch of the game to a wall in left field for a leadoff double. Shan Richters grounded the next pitch up the middle for a single to put runners on second and third for Bryce Vorsine, who lifted a sacrifice fly down the left field line to plate Gratta for the game’s first run.
South’s lead grew to 2-0 later in the inning, when a low pitch bounced just far enough from Southington North catcher Sawyer Gravel, allowing Richters to score standing up.
The top of Southington South’s order went right back to work in the top of the third, when Gratta led off with a single to right, followed by a single to left off the bat of Richters. Vorsine followed and popped out to the pitcher Nathan Chiulli for an infield fly call, but an alert Gratta tagged from second to third, where nobody was covering the bag.
Gratta’s heads-up play paid off with two outs in the inning, when a pitch to Braden Savage rolled to the backstop, allowing Gratta to score and Richters to advance to third. Richters scored later in the at-bat when Savage sent a grounder to Colin LaRosa at shortstop that hit off the lip of the infield grass and took a nasty hop, bouncing off LaRosa’s glove and allowing Savage to reach safely while Southington South took a 4-0 lead.
“They put themselves in a hole, and that was a microcosm of our entire season,” Southington North head coach Ed Roderick said of his team. “But they made a comeback and came up short. When they were loose, good things started to happen, but we dug too deep a hole.”
Gratta struck again at the plate in the fourth. With runners on first and second and a fresh arm on the mound for Southington North in LaRosa, Gratta bounced an infield single to the right side, and another smart baserunning play by Southington South turned Gratta’s single into a run. While the Southington North infield scrabled to try and turn Gratta’s slow roller into an out at first, Kiernan Perkins didn’t slow down at third, instead darting for home and scoring without a throw to push the lead to 5-0.
“He was driving the ball level and had no pop ups,” Migliore said of Gratta’s day at the plate. “A lot of kids were popping up today, but not Joey.”
Three straight singles by Vorsine, Savage and Evan Wilcox blew the game open and gave Southington South a 9-0 lead. Southington South sent up 11 batters in the explosive frame, collecting five runs on six hits to all but guarantee a date with Farmington.
Despite the large deficit, Southington North continued to fight, breaking through for a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth. Aiden Halpin slapped a leadoff triple and came across to score on a sacrifice fly to right by Derek Chiulli. Collin Martin followed with a towering blast that cleared the fence in left for a solo home run, pulling Southington North to within 9-2.
“I wasn’t giving up,” Martin said. “I feel like we did good, even though we lost.”
With two outs in the inning, Gravel drilled a two-run double to right to cut the lead even further, but Gratta and Southington South was able to escape the fourth with a 9-4 advantage.
“I felt like I pitched well,” Gratta said. “I got a little wild in the fourth inning, but I thought I closed it out well at the end.”
Nate Kraft closed the game out well with a strikeout to strand a pair of runners and keep Southington South fighting for at least another day.
“It’s big,” Gratta said of the win. “We’re back where we were last year. Now we just have to finish it off.”