When Nathan Leibold worked around a one-out single with two strikeouts in the bottom of the ninth of game two of the NECBL semifinals, it officially marked the end of the Danbury Westerners’ 2023 summer. Despite getting outscored 27-12 in the two-game series, Danbury’s path to their first playoff appearance since 2021 was not remotely smooth.
“We showed a lot of grit and grind,” manager Conor Farrell said after the Westerners’ last game.
Danbury finished 21-22 in the regular season with one game wiped out because of rain, recording their first sub-.500 campaign since going 19-23 in 2019. Going 7-11 in June with a five-game skid at one point, the Westerners turned things around with a 9-2 stretch entering the All-Star break, culminating in a 14-11 July and two separate four-game winning streaks. Additionally, the Hat City won the first-ever battle for the Mayor’s Cup over the NECBL runners-up Bristol Blues 5-3.
As a result of their impressive July stretch and an expanded NECBL playoff field featuring eight teams instead of six, Danbury earned the No. 7 seed. Scoring eight total runs in a regular-season-ending four-game losing streak, three of which came in seven-inning contests, the Westerners’ offense found a spark against the No. 2 seed Vermont Mountaineers, outscoring them 23-3 in a two-game sweep.
“[The players] did not want to go home,” Farrell said about the team and their resilience when discussing the first-round series against the Mountaineers.
But as the summer wore on, Danbury experienced a multitude of roster changes, whether because of injuries or players getting shut down. In the end, not even a somewhat thin roster could push the Westerners any further, as the eventual NECBL champion Newport Gulls stopped their second-half momentum in its tracks. Before that happened, the team consistently “passed the baton,” with Drew Wyers (.976 fielding percentage at third), Hayden Miller (.250 batting average) and Will Cook (15 hits in 22 games) stepping up at the plate and Ryan Delorbe (21 strikeouts in 21.1 innings) filling a hole in the rotation.
Danbury’s 2023 squad carried the torch of the historic “Slambury” moniker, leading the entire league in home runs with 44. All-Star Bobby Zmarzlak became the first Westerner with double-digit longballs in one season since Sonny Ulliana in 2019, smacking 10 in 104 at-bats with 25 RBIs. Only All-Star Luke Boynton finished with more than half as many round-trippers as the future Georgia Tech outfielder, hitting one in four straight starts at the Roadhouse at Rogers Park in July for a total of six.
All-Star Javon Hernandez played the hits at the top of Danbury’s batting order, whacking 35 base knocks for the league’s fifth-best batting average at .324. On top of his nine multi-hit contests, the future Auburn shortstop led the team in steals with eight, the most since Banks Griffith stole eight himself and Jake Roper swiped 12 two years ago. Those three stood on top of most of the team’s offensive categories, resulting in the Westerners finishing second in the league in team slugging percentage (.404), OPS (.748) and doubles (66).
“It was a great group of guys,” first-year assistant coach Mike Hughes said.
Danbury’s pitching staff, meanwhile, dealt strikeouts in bunches, tying the Mystic Schooners for fourth with 374. All-Star Braden Quinn accounted for almost 15% of those, finishing second in the league behind the Sanford Mainers’ Seamus Barrett with 53. Becoming the first Westerner since Mike Hauschild in 2010 with 50+ punchouts, the UConn lefty additionally earned his first career wins on the mound in two summers while possessing a 2.54 ERA.
By the postseason, Michael Szturma and Jordan Falco had become the next two guys in Danbury’s rotation, consistently starting on specific days of the week. Szturma, a Southern Connecticut State righty, went 2-1 on six Thursday starts with 23 punchouts and a 4.16 ERA. Falco, a future Rutgers righty, fared better on Tuesdays than he did on Mondays, going 2-0 with 10 strikeouts and a 4.05 ERA on the second day of the workweek and 1-2 with 15 punchouts on the first.
Pitching in save situations 50% of the time, All-Star closer Anthony Steele garnered five saves in 17.2 innings while finishing second on the team with 31 strikeouts. Sporting a microscopic 1.02 ERA, the Penn State southpaw also won three games, two of which came in extra-inning affairs against the Blues. Alex Mach (who pitched six shutout frames in his lone start) and Andrew Castelluccio each recorded their own save versus the North Adams SteepleCats within three days of each other with at least two innings thrown.
Appearing on the mound exactly once at home the entire summer, All-Star George Viebrock III struck out 30 hitters in 31 innings and nine appearances. His 2.61 ERA does not tell the full story because the Denison lefty had two perfect outings and allowed more than three runs in an outing once. Nolan Lincoln (got the decision in his first three appearances), Matthew Spada, Carson Ballard (unofficially struck out five in rain-shortened regular-season finale), Carter Kelsey (30 punchouts in 18 innings) and Timothy Cianciolo also served as reliable arms out of the Westerner bullpen, each sporting an ERA under six with at least seven strikeouts and six relief appearances.
“The pitching got better as the year went on,” Farrell commented. “These guys had to compete their tails off, and they did a lot of good things.”
Danbury entered the summer with “a chip on their shoulder,” going above and beyond a return to the playoffs with a significant first-round upset and winning the inaugural Mayor’s Cup. Energy served as one of the themes of this year’s team, and although the Westerners did not bring back the Fay Vincent Cup, Farrell enjoyed coaching the club throughout a thrilling 2023 season.
“I just loved the fun they had,” Farrell said. “It was fun to be a kid with them.”