In the top of the sixth inning, the Hart dugout was doing what it always does: hyping its batters and heckling the opposing pitcher. But one player was not engaged in the team’s routine shenanigans during the Indians’ 5-0 win over Saugus, Monday afternoon at Saugus High School.
“That last inning I was sitting in the corner, staring at the fence just trying to stay focused,” said junior right-handed pitcher Ben Niednagel.
This is a common scene for pitchers that are on the cusp of something great. Baseball players are some of the most superstitious people in the world and Niednagel was poised to throw a no-hitter.
The no-hitter didn’t come to fruition as Niednagel allowed his only hit against the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the sixth. He still had a day to be proud of, though. He picked up the win with six strikeouts and only one hit for zero runs.
“It’s hard for it not to be on your mind. There was good defense behind me, so that really helped,” Niednagel said. “I’m sore for sure. I went a lot longer than I normally do; a lot deeper in the game.”
Niednagel was able to pitch well because the Hart offense gave him a strong foundation to stand on.
“Ben’s kind of rolling, you want to give that guy a lead a little bit,” said Hart head coach Jim Ozella. “With a lead, who knows what can happen then.”
The Indians (7-3 overall, 3-0 Foothill League) had a runner threatening in the top of the first, but Saugus senior right-handed pitcher Shane Kinsley stranded him on third. Niednagel responded with a quick one-two-three inning.
The top of the second gave Niednagel a little bit of backing to play lights-out on the mound. Hart senior first baseman Isaac Kim (2-for-3, one run, one RBI) reached base on a single to left field. After a ground out and a flyout left the Indians in a situation to miss another scoring opportunity, junior designated hitter Malachi Soqui stepped up to the plate.\
Soqui (1-for-1, one run, two RBIs) squared up on a first-pitch fastball and launched it over the right field wall. The two-run moonshot gave the Indians the momentum they were looking for headed into the bottom of the second.
“We had some good at-bats earlier but getting some runs on the board really helps out,” Soqui said. “I got a good scouting report from the bats before. I knew the ball was running away from me. I just saw it and went for the first pitch. I was really excited because it was my first one of the year.”
Throughout the next couple of innings, Niednagel continued to be a thorn in the Centurions’ (1-7, 0-3) sides and the Hart hitters tacked on two more runs.
“Ben Niednagal dominated,” Ozella said. “He was outstanding today. We’ve seen that at times from him. I’m glad to see that he’s making that progress.”
One of those runs came from Soqui who scored off a wild pitch in the top of the fifth and the other was scored by sophomore catcher Matt Quintanar (2-for-3, one run, one RBI) on a hard-hit single from Kim in the top of the sixth.
“Offensively we swung the bat well at times,” Ozella said. “We made some mistakes on the bases but we’re trying to be aggressive so that’s the way it is.”
Those events led to Niednagel returning from isolation and back onto the mound for the bottom of the sixth. Saugus sophomore first baseman Ryan Egan stepped into the batter’s box determined to give his team a spark of hope in the late stages of the game.
He ripped the first pitch he saw deep into centerfield. An all-out sprint to first became risky when Egan rounded the base and headed for second. The ball arrived in Hart senior second baseman Ian Sockett’s glove as Egan slid into second. The crowd was silent for a moment until the umpire signaled safe.
“Once I got that double, everyone had a better approach. They started waiting on more pitches. Started trying to see the ball better,” Egan said. “This is a team effort.”
However, a spark of hope was not enough to ignite a comeback for Saugus. Egan was left stranded at second and the Indians tacked on another run in the top of the seventh when Quintanar drove in junior shortstop Ryan Benz (2-for-4) off a double.
Junior left-handed pitcher Jake Villar replaced Niednagel on the mound for the final frame and extinguished the ember. Saugus senior centerfielder Hayden Trowbridge squeaked by Villar with single into leftfield, but Villar responded with three straight strikeouts to end the game.
“In the bullpen I felt really good,” Villar said. “I gave up that hit in the beginning, a little shaky. I was actually a little bit grateful for it. Get the first one out of the way. That’s always a big deal. I felt more comfortable in the stretch today than I did in the windup, so in the end it was good for me to go to the stretch with the hit.”
Both teams will meet on the diamond again, Friday afternoon. The game will be at 3 p.m. at Hart High School.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Egan said. “We’ll come back Friday with the same approach we had the last two innings. We have a great team. We’ll see how things go on Friday.”