It is fitting that a Danbury native gave the Danbury Westerners their first win of the season. Facing a full count in the bottom of the ninth with two outs in a tie ballgame, the Jacksonville State senior hit his second home run of the game over the left field fence as the Westerners walked off on Opening Day 7-6 against the Ocean State Waves.
“It feels great,” Hernandez said about his game-winning longball, acknowledging the home crowd. “Two home runs is not really part of my game.”
Danbury starts their seventh straight campaign 1-0 with the win, beating Ocean State at the Roadhouse at Rogers Park on June 7 for the second year in a row. With the walk-off loss, the Waves are 0-1 for the fourth consecutive summer dating back to 2019.
Hernandez, the Westerners’ player of the game, finished 3-5 with a single on top of his two homers. Luke Boynton nearly had a home run as well, but when his 1-2 pitch ricocheted off the top of the fence and landed in the outfield, he settled for a double as part of a 2-4 night in his long-awaited Hat City debut.
While Boynton bashed and Hernandez became the hometown hero, Danbury’s bullpen contained the Ocean State offense after starter Pat Gleason allowed five runs (four earned) across the first four innings. While Nolan Lincoln earned the win after pitching the ninth, Tyler Roche conceded one run against his former NECBL team in four innings of relief, striking out seven batters while allowing just three of the 15 batters he faced to reach base.
“The bullpen really came in when we needed it,” Westerners manager Conor Farrell said after the game. “Roche came in and kept it close, [which] gave us the opportunity to do exactly what we do.”
Emotions were high all game long, even with the smoke from the Canadian wildfires casting a smoky haze at Rogers Park. On top of the annual Opening Day traditions of Dave King performing the “Danbury Westerners Theme” in front of the Danbury faithful and international opera star Perry Price belting the national anthem, the Westerners held a moment of silence for Melissa Barbagallo, an energetic and vibrant volunteer who passed away after a brief illness. Barbagallo’s daughter, Olivia, capped off the Opening Day festivities by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Danbury appeared to run away with the contest after the second inning as Waves’ starter Kyle Rossy surrendered five walks in a five-run frame. Daniel Labrador got the Westerners on the board after walking and advancing to second on a wild pitch, scoring when Brant Baughcum grounded into a double play. Mike Becchetti advanced from second to third on that play, touching home plate on a wild pitch two batters later. Having flied out just shy of the outfield fence in the first inning, Hernandez sent the first pitch he saw close to the ditch for a three-run jack.
With two on base and two down in the top of the third, Brodey Heaton smoked a 2-0 pitch to the outfield, bringing both Ocean State runners home to cut into the deficit. The Waves tied the game at five the following inning, bringing in their fifth run when Jakobi Davis committed a throwing error on Drew Holderbach’s run-scoring single.
Jason Claiborn started the bottom of the fifth with a single and made it to second when Boynton hit a single a couple pitches later. Following two straight flyouts that landed in Holderbach’s glove in foul territory, Billy Gerlott gave the Westerners their second lead of the evening on a double that skidded past Lewis Barnum’s glove in left field. That brought Claiborn home, but Boynton got thrown out at the plate when Danbury tried to tack on another run.
A runner reached second base in three of the four ensuing half innings, but neither team could change the 6-5 Westerner advantage until the top of the eighth. Matthew Graveline, having stayed in the game amidst the flurry of changes the Waves made to their batting order in the sixth and seventh, took a 2-1 pitch from Roche and sent it to the deepest part of center field. The freshman catcher, at that point playing in the outfield, stole third base with Jackson Phinney at the plate before equalizing the contest when the Bryant backstop grounded out to first.
Lincoln kept the game deadlocked in the top of the ninth, working around a two-out walk with a putout to first base, and after the first two hitters in the bottom half went down by way of the strikeout, Hernandez made sure that Danbury’s first contest of the summer would not go to extra innings.
“I’m looking forward to the rest of the season,” Farrell said after the thrilling finish.
Brooks Ey took the loss after surrendering the walk off home run. Rossy allowed five runs on two hits in two innings of work in his first start in an Ocean State uniform. In addition to both righties taking the mound during the contest, Aaron Groller allowed one run in three innings while Collin Bosley-Smith and Blake Helmstetter kept the Westerners off the board in their one inning of work.
Danbury continues their five-game homestand at Rogers Park with a doubleheader against the Vermont Mountaineers (1-0) on June 8. Vermont finished the 2022 season at 32-12, tied with the Bristol Blues for the best record in the NECBL and matching the single-season record for most wins in league history. Michael Szturma, who started all 10 games he appeared in at Southern Connecticut State University, gets the nod for the Westerners in the first game, with first pitch scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST. Farrell has yet to announce the starter for the second game, which begins 30 minutes after the completion of the first. Both contests will be seven innings.