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ECML giving locals a chance to play baseball

Groton — After finishing an overnight shift as a New Britain police officer, Sam Sabilia jumped in his car shortly after 7 a.m. and headed to Washington Park.

There was never a doubt in his mind that he'd play for the Knights in an Eastern Connecticut Major League baseball doubleheader on Sunday morning.

Sleep could wait.

Sabilia ended up catching 11 of the 14 innings of the doubleheader on a warm, sunny afternoon. The Knights split the two games with the Pirates.

His love for the sport convinced him to make the commitment and long drive.

"I missed baseball, I don't know what else to say," said Sabilia, who grew up in New London and graduated from Mitchell College in 2018. "I just missed the game. It's good to be back. It feels good to be out there."

ECML players echo Sabilia's sentiment.

They're happy to have the opportunity to play baseball this summer while numerous other leagues shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"A long day," said a sweat-drenched Jeremy Santos of Sunday's doubleheader. "But it's fun to get to play." Santos, a New London graduate and Mitchell College player, also competes for the Knights.

The ECML has undergone a makeover in its 27th season.

Long-time ECML commissioner John Turner and Mitchell College coach Travis Beausoleil worked together to upgrade the amateur wooden bat league by adding college players. Each of the five teams plays three games per week.

The league began the season last Tuesday.

"It's been good so far," said Beausoleil, who watched Sunday's two doubleheaders — one that started in the morning and another in the afternoon between the Clams and Tides. "Every game has been competitive. They're out there getting reps, which is the reason why we did this.

"Our society at large with where we're at, we needed baseball. It's nice to be back and see it. Everyone, thus far, is happy."

ECML players are at various stages in their playing careers.

The Knights feature mostly Mitchell College Mariners and also have a few New London High School Whalers on their roster. Montville's Jacob Plikus, who came on in relief in the second game, is one of three players from Nichols College. Old Lyme's Eddie Kaftan, a pitcher at UMass, also is on the roster.

The Pirates are the league's most established team, relying on a mixture of current and former high school and college players. Tyler Mikula, a Griswold High School graduate, closed out the second game on the mound, picking up the win in a 12-3 decision. He struck out seven in three scoreless innings while St. Bernard graduate Josh Gurnack, a catcher for the University of Albany, went 3-for-4 with three RBI.

Mikula also came armed with a healthy sense of humor, joking with Beausoleil about the speed of his fastball.

"I wish I did this a long time ago," Mikula said to no one in particular as he walked into the dugout.

Guest players also sometimes make an appearance.

On Sunday, Stonington and UConn graduate Doug Domnarski, a minor league free agent after pitching last season on the Class A level for Detroit, started Sunday's first game for the Knights. He earned the win in the 3-2 game with three scoreless innings, striking out six. Mitchell's John-John Jose had two hits and an RBI.

Sabilia, who played only one year of high school baseball at Ledyard and mainly served as a bullpen catcher during his Mitchell career, enjoyed catching Domnarski. He admits he's a little bit out of his league in the ECML, especially at the plate.

"It's a little more than what I expected," Sabilia said. "It's not just the average men's league."

After Sunday's doubleheader, Sabilia headed home to Rocky Hill to shower and sleep before leaving for his Sunday night shift at 10.

Like most summer leagues, fielding a team can be challenging at times due to work and personal commitments.

With players missing in part because of the holiday weekend, the Knights had to call on Santos to pitch in the final inning of the second game.

He's an outfielder, not a pitcher.

Let's just say he struggled, but he didn't mind.

"I don't remember the last time I pitched," Santos said. "Getting out there was just fun. You can't take this for granted because not everyone gets to play like that. We've got opportunities to just have fun and play with people that we've been playing with for years. It's good to get out and get the game going."

g.keefe@theday.com

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