Bench play a big reason for Connecticut’s success

Ask Fairfield, Conn., manager Michael Randazzo what he likes most about his team and one could be standing there a while.

What is there not to like about a New England Regional champion that has reached the U.S. Final 4 and become the best in its league’s decorated history? Still, there is something that elicits a greater emotion when Randazzo hears the question. Ask him about how good his reserves are and listen to the pride in his voice.

“I love talking about that,” Randazzo said. “It is something every single game. “At the beginning of he summer, the first few games, that wasn’t the case but then all the sudden they settled into their spots on the team and now every day someone doing something good.”

The strength of those reserves, the strength of all 14 players, is a big reason Fairfield is within two wins of reaching the national championship. The bench has provided major lifts throughout regionals and at the Series and, without, those reserves, Fairfield likely would not be competing at the Little League World Series.

It was the bench that sparked a rally from three runs down against New Hampshire in the New England winner’s bracket final. It was the reserves who ignited a game-breaking rally in the championship against Maine. And it is those reserves who have repeatedly delivered big hits and/or plays at the Series.

“It’s unbelievable how these boys have fulfilled roles this summer. no chance we’re here with out the subs and the bench,” Randazzo said. “That’s why these boys are on this team and why we carried 14. It’s a good group of boys, a good group of players.”

Sean O’Neill came off the bench in Fairfield’s first Series game and hit a critical two-run double. Take that away and instead of winning, 7-6, Fairfield would have lost, 6-5. O’Neill again delivered a clutch hit in Monday’s 14-6 comeback win over Washington.

Fairfield trailed 5-2 entering the fourth inning and was nine outs from elimination. The first four batters up were pinch hitters. This was their moment. This was their time to show the world how good they are.

They did so with gusto.

O’Neill led off the inning with a double and Connecticut suddenly was rejuvenated. Anthony Falletta followed with a single and set the stage for one of the biggest moments in Fairfield American Little League history.

Christian Smith entered as a pinch-hitter and crushed a 3-run home run into the bushes beyond center field. Just like that, Fairfield tied the game. Just like that, everything changed. Just like that, Fairfield was off and running. And hitting. And scoring.

“I was just thinking be aggressive. I was just thinking get a base hit and bring in some runners,” Smith said before pondering how big his home run was. “It was just a season-saving home run. Nothing big.”

As Fairfield continued its charge, Smith’s pinch-hit home run grew bigger and bigger. Fairfield had been at the Series twice before in 2010 and 2012. No team, though, had won multiple games and reached the U.S Final 4. Smith’s blast pointed the way and fellow reserve Christian Dodder scored the go-ahead run moments later when Ethan Righter hit an RBI double.

Fairfield scored two more runs and took an 8-5 lead. It never trailed again as starters and reserves again came together and delivered something big. Michael Iannzazzo hit a 2-run, fifth-inning home run and Fairfield scored six more times as it put the finishing touches on a 14-6 win.

“It seemed like it (Smith’s home run) lit a fire. Before that it was kind of dead in the dugout,” Iannazzo said. “That home run got everyone up. The energy picked up and everybody started hitting.”

And so it goes at Fairfield. The names change, but the results do not. This team has not enhanced the league’s legacy and established itself as its best team yet because of a few star players. It has reached these heights because it is a fantastic team, period.

And that is why so many others back home like Randazzo love this team.

“It’s so special because it’s so hard to do,” Fairfield American President Matt McGuire said. “They have all played very well defensively, they have all hit the ball hard and they deserve all the credit in the world. It’s a special group of boys.”