By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
Connecticut Sports Online
TORRINGTON, Aug. 1 -- As the losses piled up for the Torrington Twisters in the final two weeks of the season, the team's confidence remained steady.
The Twisters, who lost seven of its last 10 games, displayed some championship form Wednesday night taking game one of the NECBL semifinals with a gutty 3-2 victory over the defending league champion Keene Swamp Bats at Fuessenich Park.
"The fans were getting restless the last two weeks but we knew we could do it," said Twister outfielder Mike McMillian, who had a key RBI triple in the fifth inning to break up a scoreless duel. "We were collecting ourselves and working on the basics. We're a talented team."
Game two of the best-of-3 series is tonight in Keene at 7 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, will be Friday night at Fuessenich Park.
Tremendous defense kept the Twisters in the contest. Torrington turned three double plays and catcher Brian Lentz threw out the only two Swamp Bats that tried to run on him.
"That was big-time playoff defense. In situations like this, you have to step it up a bit," said Twister hurler Tim Leveque, who earned the victory. "I got bailed out of a few innings. But I made some good pitches, too. I didn't panic too much."
Keene, which had won six in a row, had a runner on third with one out in the second inning. But third baseman Justin McClain and second baseman Adam Haley made great plays on ground balls to end the inning.
Haley started a double play in the third to end the inning while shortstop Taber Lee started a double play in the fourth. In the seventh, with the Twisters holding a 1-0 lead, Haley started an inning-ending double play.
With the bases loaded, he gobbled up a ground ball, flipped it to Lee, who fired it to first base. Rory Shortell stretched to get the out and squelch the Keene rally.
"Our pitching and defense have been solid all year," a pleased Twister manager Gregg Hunt said.
Torrington took a 1-0 lead in the fifth. Shortell, who played at first and will start on the mound tonight in game two, hit a two-out single just past Keene shortstop Kevin Melillo. McMillian ripped an RBI triple down the left field line off Keene hurler Tim Stauffer for a 1-0 lead.
"Everything seemed to slow down on the outside fastball," said McMillian. "I wasn't going to swing at the pitch but I just swung."
The Twisters added two more runs in the eighth. McMillian had a one-out double followed by a Jordan Czarniecki single. Haley reached on an error as McMillian scored. Lee walked to load the bases and Czarniecki scored on a sacrifice fly to center field for a 3-0 lead.
Stauffer, who entered the game with a 7-0 record, had walked only three batters in 60 innings this year.
The Twisters needed those runs because Keene's Myron Lesile belted a two-run home run off reliever Jeff Trzos in the ninth to cut the lead to one, 3-2. But Trzos bore down to retire the next three batters and earn his ninth save of the season.
Outside of the fifth and eighth inning, Stauffer was as sharp as he has been all season. In the other six innings, he allowed only one hit and struck out four.
Leveque was just as crafty, scattering six hits and striking out three to earn his first playoff victory.
"If a pitcher wants to learn how to pitch, come watch him pitch," Hunt said of Leveque. "He just knows how. He rises to the occasion."
McMillian finished with a double, triple and one RBI for Torrington while Czarniecki added two singles. Kevin Melillo had two singles for Keene.
The Swamp Bats will pitch Justin Nyewide (5-1, 2.80 ERA) in game two and Gabe Ribas (6-2, 2.01) in game three, if necessary. For the Twisters, Shortell (2-3, 3.64) is scheduled to pitch game two. Hunt hasn't decided if Reuben Kerbs (3-2, 3.99) or Rob Harrand (3-0, 0.62) will pitch in game three.
DIAMOND DUST -- The Twisters entered the series without All-NECBL first baseman Nate Gold (.310, 28 RBI, 5 home runs), who broke his left hand when he was hit by a pitch on July 23 against Keene. Robert Newton (.222) is home with a family emergency and 6-foot-8 pitcher Eric Thomas has been lost for the year with a staph infection on his right arm. Thomas (3-1, 2.86 ERA) developed the infection Saturday and has to be at the hospital each day every eight hours for treatment.
The Twister broadcast on WAPJ and the Internet was off the air last night due to a technical problem at the station. Tonight's game will be available at the Internet at http://www.wkbkwxod.com for the broadcast of the Swamp Bats radio station (WKBK-AM). ... In two previous playoff appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Twisters never lost a semifinal round contest, going 4-0 by sweeping Danbury in 1997 and the Rhode Island Reds in 1998. ... Keene had won six straight and 12 of its last 15 games.
RECORDS -- The Twisters set some new team records in 2001. The Torrington pitching staff set records for the fewest walks given up in a season (130), fewest strikeouts (290), fewest hits allowed (278), fewest runs allowed (145) and fewest home runs (12) allowed. The Twisters also committed the fewest errors (48) in a season.
Twister pitcher Rob Harrand set a new single-season ERA record with a 0.62 ERA in 29 innings of work, breaking the old record set by Ryan Kearney in 1997 (0.66). He also set a new team record with only two earned runs allowed.
Harrand (3-0) was three innings of short of qualifying for the league pitching awards.
Taber Lee set a new single-season record by getting caught stealing nine times, breaking the record set by Brian Houdek (6) in 1999.