By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
Connecticut Sports Online
TORRINGTON, Aug. 5, 2001 -- As the 2001 New England Collegiate Baseball League campaign came down the homestretch, the question surrounding the Torrington Twisters was how far could they go as key personnel continued to migrate to the bench or home due to a variety of reasons.
The defending NECBL champion Keene Swamp Bats ended the Twisters' season on a wet, rainy Friday night with a decisive 4-2 victory in game 3 of the league semifinals.
The list of players not available for the season finale was just as impressive as the effort of those on the field.
Nate Gold, the All-NECBL first baseman (.310, 5 HR, 28 RBI), was watching on the bench, lost for the season on July 23 when he broke his left hand after being hit by a pitch. Robert Newton missed the final six games of the regular season and all of the playoffs when he left for a family emergency. Brian Kraft, a steady second baseman and versatile hitter, missed the second half of the season after tearing his rotator cuff. Speedy centerfielder Jordan Czarniecki missed seven games during July with a strained groin muscle.
The pitching staff took a beating, too.
Kevin McDowell won a game and signed with the Detroit Tigers after being drafted in the 15th round. Michael Moat was 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA in his first two games but went home in mid-June. Corey Hahn (1-1, 3.06 ERA) was a valuable pitcher and backup infielder but he left in early July because he wanted more playing time at third base. Rob Harrand (3-0, 0.62) won three of his four starts but a sore shoulder limited his playing time in the final weeks. Eric Thomas, the 6-foot-8, 11th round draft pick of the Tigers, was lost in the final week of the season with a staph infection. Reuben Kerbs, who did whatever was needed (start, middle relief, close), was inactive for two weeks with a sore shoulder at midseason.
Still, the Twisters were the best team in the league for the first six weeks of the season. They won the NECBL's National Division championship and posted a winning season (25-15) for the fourth time in five years.
After a 4-2 start, the Twisters ripped off wins in 13 of its next 17 games. The Twisters were 15 games over .500 on July 21 at 23-9.
Unfortunately, the Twisters would win only two more games the rest of the season.
"If you took all the players we signed and that played here and had them on the field at the same time, this was the best team ever assembled in the history of the NECBL," said the Twisters' fifth-year manager Gregg Hunt, who coached the 1998 Twisters to a 30-12 regular mark the best in league history.
Outstanding pitching, solid defense up the middle and just enough hitting to win games catapulted the Twisters to the top of the NECBL.
All-NECBL shortstop Taber Lee (.321, six doubles, 10 RBI, 14 stolen bases) was outstanding with good range and a hard-throwing arm. Second baseman Adam Haley (.289, 13 RBI), one of the most unsung infielders in the league, was an anchor in the infield. His outstanding play in game one of the NECBL semifinals helped the Twisters beat Keene, 3-2 on Wednesday.
The numbers didn't look as good for third baseman Justin McClain (.212, 4 home runs, 21 RBI), who made 12 errors. But he had a knack for clutch hits and solid play when it was needed. Catchers Brian Lentz (.289, 11 RBI) and Billy Ryan (.252) were quietly consistent.
On the mound, Tim Leveque (6-1, 2.36) pitched like an All-Star but wasn't chosen. His strikeouts dropped to 35 from 45 a year ago but his ERA also dropped from 2.90 in 2000 to 2.36 in 2001.
Big 6-foot-6 closer Jeff Trzos had eight saves and won two games. Thomas (3-1, 2.86), Harrand and Kerbs (3-2, 3.99) got the job done when they were healthy. Rory Shortell (2-3, 3.64, team-high 40 strikeouts) was a bit inconsistent but had some solid performances and key victories.
"We didn't quit," Hunt said. "We were very resilient. We seem to find ways to win. It was a different guy each night."
For the most part, the players did whatever it took. Haley and outfielder Mike McMillian even pitched in relief in a game against Keene.
Torrington natives C.J. Giampaolo and Nick Carbone contributed as well. Giampaolo, who had a rough start on the mound, became one of the most versatile members of the pitching staff. He started, was a middle reliever and closed out games. Outfielder Nick Carbone received limited playing time but he had a game-winning RBI in a 7-6 win over Lowell in mid-July.
There were plenty of good times with the Twisters in 2001.
There was the pair of one-run, 10-inning victories over Concord and Eastern in a day-night doubleheader and McClain hit a grand slam against Eastern to erase a four-run deficit. There was Lee scoring from third on a passed ball in the ninth to beat Newport, 5-4 in June and Shortell pitching a complete-game three hit shutout in a 1-0 win over Lowell and his 3-2 complete game win over Middletown, striking out 12 and leaving two Giants runners stranded on base in the ninth inning.
"We played the best baseball in the league in the first six weeks," Hunt said.
"It's been a blast," Lee said. "These are the most devoted fans that I have ever played for. I would still get chills when we were introduced before the game. A lot us don't get to play in front of so many fans (in college)."
"It was a great core of guys," added Trzos.
DIAMOND DUST -- Lee probably won't be back next year, even if he doesn't turn pro after his junior year at San Diego State. He has already been asked to play in the Cape Cod League next summer. "It (Cape Cod League) is a great league and I'll see some better pitching," he said. "It's the next level up. I want to do this for a living so I need to keep challenging myself." ... While Lee and Gold earned All-NECBL honors, Lee, Gold, Trzos and Haley were named to the NECBL All-Star team that dropped a 5-2 decision to the Cape Cod All-Star team. ... The Twisters have the best winning percentage of any NECBL franchise with a record of 123-78 (.611). Lowell (48-33, .592) and Keene (97-68, .587) are the next closest franchises. ... The Twisters attracted 21,891 fans at Fuessenich Park this season, an average of 1,216 fans a game. The Twisters have played in front of over 104,000 fans in its five years. In 2000, there were 25,558 fans and in 1999, there were 24,899 fans at the games. ... No Twister earned Player of the Week or Pitcher of the Week honors from the league in 2001.