WATERFORD -- For the second consecutive season, the New Canaan baseball team was somewhat of a surprise participant in the Class L state tournament semifinals.
Rather than taking a quiet and somewhat dejected walk off the field at game's end as they did last year, the No. 24 Rams were high-fiving and cheering after beating No. 21 Sheehan 8-4. In doing so, the Rams will play in the state championship for the first time in 40 years on either Friday or Saturday against No. 3 Fitch at Palmer Field in Waterford, the same site as the semifinals.
J.R. Anderson tossed six-plus innings while giving up four runs (two earned) on six hits, four walks and one strikeout. Perhaps Anderson's biggest moment of the game occured in the bottom of the first, when he worked out of a bases loaded, two-out jam by getting Sheehan's Andy Mazzone to fly out to right fielder Nick Cascione.
"We've never had doubts this whole tournament. We're the 24-seed, what do we have to lose?" Anderson said. "We've been the underdogs every time we've come out the field, and we just come and play our game."
New Canaan, which finished the regular season with a mark of just 10-10 and did not qualify for the FCIAC tournament, is just one win away from wearing the state tournament crown.
The Rams may have surprised the rest of the field by winning four straight playoff games en route to the title game, but they hardly surprised themselves.
"I was just thinking `throw strikes.' I'm not a guy who overpowers, so I wanted to let them put it in play and see what my defense could do for me, and it worked out. Luckily, we got out of (the first) with no harm done," Anderson said. "The regular season didn't go as we necessarily wanted it to, but we couldn't ask for a better run right now. This team has come together."
New Canaan cracked the scoreboard in the top of the second when Brian Moran, Dan Rajkowski and Gogo Jones all reached on infield singles to start the inning. After an RBI sac fly by Cascione and a walk to Grady Amrhein, Casey Ouellette snuck a two-run single through the middle of the infield for a 3-0 lead.
New Canaan doubled its lead by plating three more in the top of the third. Andrew Casali led off the inning with a single, stole second and advanced to third on a one-out hit by Brian Moran, who went 4-for-4 with a double on the day. Rajkowski and Jones picked up consecutive RBI singles and Moran scored on a wild pitch to extend the lead to 6-0.
"I saw the ball well and I was ready to hit. The entire team was pumped," Moran said. "It's all come together. It's been a great run."
Although he struck out just one batter, Anderson allowed his defense to do its job behind him, highlighted by a slick 4-6-3 double play from second baseman Doug Reilly to shortstop Rajkowski to Jones.
"I wasn't born yet," New Canaan coach Mitch Hoffman said of the last time New Canaan made it to the state championship game (1972). "I'm just happy for these guys. Right now, the bats are coming alive with 49 hits in the last four games. We face some buzzsaws in our league, and you don't get a break. J.R. has been a legit starter for us and he's won a lot of tough games."
Sheehan closed to within 6-1 on an RBI groundout by Mazzone which plated Rob Sprafke in the sixth inning, but New Canaan extended its lead to 8-1 in the top of the seventh on two unearned runs.
Trailing 8-1, Sheehan loaded the bases on a single by Jim Davitt, a single by Matt Daniels and a walk to Mike Colantonio, prompting Hoffman to make a pitching change and bring in Mike Keshin. Keshin required just four batters to record the three outs, striking out two in the process.
"We're coming out aggressive, we're not afraid of anybody and we've got some pretty good talent," Hoffman said. "Keshin has come a long way this year. The last couple games, he's really been big for us and he's doing a great job."
NEW CANAAN 8, SHEEHAN 4
NEW CANAAN 033 000 2--8 13 3
SHEEHAN 000 001 3--4 6 2
Records: New Canaan 14-10, Sheehan 14-10.
Doubles: NC--Brian Moran; S--Duffy.