NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Trailing by a run heading to the bottom of the ninth, the Merrimack baseball team faced a two-out, two-on situation and handed the bat to freshman pinch hitter Matt Brown (Belmont, Mass.) with runners at first and second. The rookie promptly blasted the game-winning, walk-off, two-RBI double, as the Warriors rallied to down Stonehill, 4-3, to move their magic number to clinch a playoff berth to one with a dramatic Friday afternoon victory at the Warrior Baseball Diamond.
Improving to 25-16 on the year with an 11-8 record in the Northeast Division, Merrimack needs either one more win in either of its remaining two games against the Skyhawks (22-21, 8-11 NE Div.) this weekend or a loss or tie from UMass Lowell to seal a spot in the Northeast-10 Championship next week. The 25th victory also marks the third most in program history, trailing only a pair of 28-win seasons and a 30-win season in the mid-90s in the all-time record books.
After the visitors broke a 2-2 draw with a run in the top of the ninth on a squeeze play, Merrimack mounted a rally of its own after senior Joe Mantoni (Northbridge, Mass.) drew a one-out walk and moved to second on a single down the right field line off the bat of junior Eddie Newton (North Billerica, Mass.).
After a shallow fly ball to center led to a fielder's choice at third base in the ensuing at-bat, Brown was given the pinch-hit opportunity with two down and men at first and second. Ahead in the count, 2-1, the Belmont, Mass., native deposited a long fly ball to right that sailed over the glove of the Stonehill fielder, allowing both Newton and freshman Mike Forgione (North Branford, Conn.) to score all the way from second and first, respectively, giving the Warriors their second walk-off win in the past three games.
The rally came after the Merrimack offense was snake-bitten during the majority of regulation; the Warriors had mustered no runs through the first five innings before taking a temporary 2-1 lead with a two-spot in the bottom of the sixth.
Stonehill promptly tied the contest at 2-all with a score in the top of the seventh, handing junior righty Alek Morency (Nashua, N.H.) a no decision after seven strong innings. The right-hander entered the game ranked sixth nationally with a 1.33 ERA, and limited the Stonehill offense to two runs on seven hits while striking out five and walking two.
Skyhawk starter Jim Duff also did not receive a decision after tossing seven innings, yielding two runs on six hits while striking out six. Reliever Steve Pike fell to 2-2 after surrendering the game-deciing runs in the ninth following 1 2/3 frames of two-run ball. Senior Beau Batchelor (Peabody, Mass.) became the winning pitcher thanks to the rally in the ninth; the right-hander tossed two innings while allowing a run on three hits and also totaled two strikeouts.
Senior Casey Cotter (North Hampton, N.H.) led the home side with a 2-for-2 showing at the plate, reaching base on four occasions while driving in a run. Six different Warriors totaled a hit apiece over the course of the game, while Stonehill's Billy Karalis led the way with a 3-for-4 performance.
Down by a run in the sixth, Merrimack tied the game after a throwing error on an infield single pushed a run home. Later in the frame, Cotter singled in senior Alan Pastyrnak Jr. (Bristol, Conn.) to give the home side a 2-1 advantage.
But the visitors immediately tied the match with a leadoff double and a bloop single in the seventh; the Skyhawks continued to threaten and had the bases loaded but a sacrifice fly opportunity led to senior Mark O'Flynn (Ipswich, Mass.) gunning down the potential go-ahead run at the plate on an outfield assist from right to home.
In the ninth, Stonehill got to Batchelor thanks to a run-scoring squeeze play, putting Merrimack on the brink of defeat before Brown capped off the rally with his two-RBI double.
Merrimack and Stonehill return to the diamond for game two tomorrow (May 4) afternoon. First pitch from the Warrior Baseball Diamond is set for 3:30 p.m., and before the game head coach Jim Martin and the Merrimack Athletic Department will honor the team's eight seniors with a special pregame ceremony.