WALTHAM, Mass. – Guided by a three-RBI day from senior Joe Mantoni (Northbridge, Mass.) and a solid start from sophomore Tim Cashman (Rowley, Mass.), the Merrimack baseball team repelled a rally from host and first-place Bentley in the bottom of the ninth to lay claim to a huge series-clinching, 4-3 victory over the Falcons in an important Northeast-10 Conference Divisional showdown on Tuesday afternoon at DeFelice Field.
Improving to 24-16 overall with a 10-8 mark in the Northeast Division, the Warriors enter the final three-game stretch of the regular season with a weekend series against Stonehill, whom it held a 2 1/2-game lead in the standings over entering Tuesday. UMass Lowell entered Tuesday 1 ½ games behind the Warriors and holds a 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the Warriors, meaning Merrimack would need to finish at least a game ahead of the River Hawks to clinch a playoff berth.
"I'm proud of my guys the way they competed and played today," noted head coach Jim Martin afterward. "It was a gutsy win on the road against a great Bentley team. Timmy Cashman pitched great and Beau got the job done with short rest. Offensively, we battled against a great pitcher and got the lead early and we were able to hold it."
Cashman picked up his third win of the season and ended a three-game skid of his own after tossing seven strong innings over the Falcons. By coincidence, Cashman and Bentley starter Lamarre Rey were matched up against each other for the third time this year, but it was the righty Cashman who came away victorious, benefitting from five strikeouts while working around eight Bentley hits. Rey took the loss despite a complete-game effort, surrendering four runs (three earned) on seven hits while walking five.
Mantoni, meanwhile, made every one of his RBI count, as the senior drove in the first two runs in the top of the first before adding another on a sacrifice fly midway through the game. He represented one of three Warriors to finish with two hits, joining the likes of freshman Frank Crinella (Springfield, Mass.) and senior Mark O'Flynn (Ipswich, Mass.) who also accomplished that feat Tuesday.
Two quick runs in the top of the first sparked the Merrimack offense in the early goings. After senior Casey Cotter (North Hampton, N.H.) led off the game with a walk, Crinella ripped a double to left to put two in scoring position. Two batters later, Mantoni followed that up with a two-RBI single to give the Warriors a 2-0 advantage after a half inning.
Cashman and Rey then settled into a groove, as both tossed scoreless innings in the second and third. Merrimack had a chance in the fourth after Mantoni doubled and headed to third on a fly ball to right, but the Warriors would strand him there. Bentley promptly put a man in scoring position in the bottom of the fourth after Logan Gillis singled and stole second and third, but Cashman came through with a huge strikeout and induced a lineout to center to end the threat.
In the sixth, both sides would tack on runs, as junior Eddie Newton (North Billerica, Mass.) provided an RBI single to score O'Flynn before Bentley finally broke through against Cashman with an RBI base knock off the bat of Kevin Korwek, pulling the Falcons to within a 3-1 deficit after sixth.
An inning later, the hosts made it a one-run game on an RBI double off the bat of Sean Keady, but Bentley's aggressive base running cost them a chance to keep the inning going, as Dante Padovani was gunned down by Crinella on a relay throw home, ending the inning abruptly with the Falcons behind by just a run, 3-2.
But Merrimack promptly responded with a run in the eighth, as a Mantoni sacrifice fly led to his third RBI of the day to score Cotter, whose life on the base paths was extended by a throwing error. Merrimack then had the bases loaded, but an inning-ending double play kept the Warriors' production to just the one run, as the visitors regained a two-run lead (4-2) after eight at-bats.
Senior Beau Batchelor (Peabody, Mass.) worked around a one-out walk and a single to post a zero in the bottom of the eighth and returned eyeing a save opportunity in the ninth. After a strikeout yielded the first out of the inning, Batchelor found himself in trouble after Bryan Rocha reached on a one-out double and scored on an RBI base hit from Padovani.
But at the tail end of the play, Padovani was thrown out trying to reach second on the throw home, and instead of a runner-on-second, one-out opportunity for the Falcons, Merrimack got a huge second out and erased all base runners, as Batchelor induced a game-ending grounder to second to pick up his second save of the year.
Equipped with a two-game lead over Stonehill and Lowell for the final playoff spot in the Northeast Division, the Warriors return home to round out the regular season with a three-game, weekend series against the Skyhawks. The two sides will play one game each on Friday (May 3), Saturday (May 4) and Sunday (May 5), with all three tilts scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. first pitch.