Young Rams turn season around, now prepare for state tournament

The Bristol Central baseball team came into the 2022 regular season with plenty of unknowns.

That’s what happens when your roster contains just three seniors and a combined 12 freshmen and sophomores. There were seven juniors on the roster, but the only varsity experience for them came in 2021. There was no season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Central lost its first three games and wound up dropping seven of its first nine. There were some close losses along the way, including a one-run defeat in nine innings at Plainville in the second game of the season. It was easy to be frustrated, and the Rams were.

“Sometimes it takes something to turn the corner. JT (senior JT Clark) was hurt, there’s some things that happened in the middle, but look what happened,” Bristol Central head coach Bunty Ray said. “They started playing with a little more passion, because you never know when something gets taken away or something is in your face and you have to deal with it. The biggest thing for us, in any sport, any situation, is to handle it when something goes wrong.”

Central rode the dominating pitching of sophomore Oscar Kuzniar (6 innings) and junior Frank Spirito IV (1 inning) to a 6-0 home shutout of Plainville on April 30. On May 3, sophomore left-hander Nate Pirog was awesome in a 1-0 win over Bristol Eastern at Muzzy Field. Wins against New Britain (10-0, 5 innings) and Conard (5-3) followed, and the Rams were suddenly 6-7.

After a rough road loss to Lewis Mills, Central sandwiched home wins over Berlin and Middletown around a loss to RHAM. The win over Middletown guaranteed Central’s spot in the Class L state tournament. A pair of close losses followed against Hall and Avon, but the Rams ended their regular season in the win column with an 8-1 victory over Eastern on Monday evening at Muzzy.

“We did what we needed to do. After that start that we had to the season, to turn it around and get nine wins, that’s a pretty good season,” Ray said following the win over the Lancers.

Central again rode its pitching to victory, this time a complete game from Spirito. The right-hander had a no-hitter into the sixth inning before a slow roller down the third baseline ended the bid.

“He was unbelievable. He’s been unbelievable down the stretch,” Ray said. “He’s now started to realize how to pitch. Him and Coach (Mitch) Rossi are on the same page. His development over the year is ridiculous. He isn’t only throwing fastballs. He’s throwing breaking balls, changeups. He’s using two-seamers, so he’s starting to command all his pitches. I can’t say enough about what he’s done, and I can’t say enough about what he’s done with Mitch.”

After being kept off-balance by Eastern junior right-hander Ryan Maglio, Central got some hits, scored a couple runs on infield grounders, and took advantage of some Lancer mistakes to rip off eight runs in a three-inning stretch.

“It was getting frustrating over there. Just the bad at bats, one after another,” Ray said. “I knew it would just take a couple baserunners and maybe something, but once we scored that first run, you could just see everybody go phew. Credit to their kid, he was keeping us off-balance, but it was just going to take something. Then that big inning really gave us the confidence we needed down the stretch.”

That big inning was a five-run fifth that increased Central’s advantage to 6-0. Senior captain JT Clark, who was injured earlier in the season, helped out on offense. So did junior catcher Ryan Ring, who had an RBI single and RBI groundout to his credit. Kuzniar brought in a run with a grounder of his own. It was the last regular season game for seniors Clark, Zachary Vanasse and Bryan Capezzone.

Eastern did score a run in the sixth when Spirito got a little wild with his control, but the run was the only one the right-hander allowed.

“They came right back, they put a guy on. We were able to get out of it,” Ray said.

With the first round of the state tournament a week away, Central has time to get ready, and Ray plans on using all of that time.

“We need to do a lot of practicing. We need to do a lot of work on a lot of things,” Ray said. “This is a very young team, and we’re still not doing the things you need to do to win in the tournament.”

Ray also had some optimism, stating that a couple key hits, good bounces and solid pitching could lead to success in the state tournament. It’s understandable for Ray to have that optimism, given the way the Rams turned their season around.

“I’m really proud of the way they handled themselves,” Ray said.

GALLERY: Here are my photos from Monday’s game.

PHOTO CAPTION: Bristol Central junior right-hander Frank Spirito IV fires away against Bristol Eastern on Monday evening at Muzzy Field. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)