Hawks’ tough start a thing of the past

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Woodland pitcher Billy Alfiere threw eight strikeouts without walking a batter Monday versus Kennedy in Waterbury. After a 0-7 start, the Hawks have won three of their last five games. –FILE PHOTO

WATERBURY — The Woodland baseball team may finally be settling into a groove.

After an 0-7 start marred by close losses and unreliable defense, the Hawks have won three of their last five, including an 8-2 victory over Kennedy on Monday at Municipal Stadium.

Billy Alfiere took a no-hitter into the fifth inning until losing it in one of the most bizarre manners possible. With two outs and a runner on second, Kennedy’s Albert Rodriguez hit a ground ball to the left side that plunked the runner. By scoring rules, it’s a base hit.

Alfiere was unfazed, going the distance on just 88 pitches. He allowed two more throwaway hits in the seventh inning and both runs were unearned. Alfiere recorded a season-high eight strikeouts and didn’t walk a batter.

That last statistic — zero bases on balls — is one of the key reasons for Woodland’s (3-9) recent turnaround, according to second-year coach Mike Kingsley.

“In the last three or four games, we’ve had three pitching performances where we didn’t walk a batter,” Kingsley said. “The pitchers pounding the strike zone have translated into a defense that’s on its toes rather than one that’s sitting back on its heels and making mistakes.”

The defense has been the glaring issue all season, but it has been better of late. Thirty eight errors in the first 12 games have led to 46 unearned runs. Take away those gaffes and the Hawks’ pitching staff has a collective ERA of 2.03.

“We’ve pitched good enough to win all year and we’ve hit good enough to win all year, but our defense was letting us down,” Kingsley said. “Recently, we’ve been putting together solid defensive efforts for seven innings.”

Woodland’s offense has been another strong point for most of the season. The Hawks have outhit their opponents in nine of 12 games, racking up a team average of .281. Over the first seven games, though, the team struggled in key situations with runners on base.

Now, though, Kingsley sees a difference in his batters when it comes to getting jobs done at the plate.

“They’re starting to understand their roles on the team and situational hitting,” Kingsley said. “They’re willing to do what they need to do in certain situations. At the beginning of the year, they would have been upset after a ground ball to second. Now they appreciate having moved a runner to third. It’s been a collective team effort to play fundamental baseball.”

The effort was clear on Monday as most of Woodland’s runs scored thanks to simple, fundamental plays.

In the third, Mike Kenney stood on third after a leadoff three-base error, and he scored on the next play thanks to a groundout up the middle by Dave Uhl.

In the fifth, Connor Chura and Kennedy converted consecutive sacrifice bunts to give the team runners on second and third with one out before Uhl cracked a sac fly to make it 2-0. Back-to-back hits by Tanner Kingsley and Anthony Scirpo stretched the lead to 4-0.

Alfiere added an RBI single in the sixth, while Joe Fancher slammed a pinch-hit sac fly. Alfiere and Kenney also scored in the inning on an error and a wild pitch.

Woodland matches up with Wilby on Wednesday, before playing on Friday against St. Paul. Kingsley said the team is eager to get a second crack at the division after not being able to seal the deal in any of the first seven games.

“Coming back around, I think the kids are hungry to play seven solid innings of baseball and prove to themselves that they can beat the teams we lost close games to,” Kingsley said. “It’s not as much wanting to beat those teams because they beat us, but to prove to ourselves that we can play with any team in the league.”