NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Playing in its first postseason game in three years after clinching a spot in the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, the Merrimack baseball team assured itself of at least two more games in 2013; thanks to an early onslaught of four consecutive runs over a four-inning span and a dominant outing from junior Alek Morency (Nashua, N.H.), the Warriors will contend for the Northeast-10 Championship title after advancing to the four-team weekend double-elimination bracket with a 4-1 victory over top-seeded and 26th-ranked Franklin Pierce in the First Round on Tuesday night at Pappas Field in Rindge, N.H.
Improving to 27-17 on the year, the Warriors advance to play defending champion Le Moyne as part of the four-team, double-elimination NE-10 Championship weekend on Thursday afternoon at the University of New Haven. Start times and the official bracket will be announced by the league later tonight on www.northeast10.org.
Thanks to the efforts of Northeast-10 Rookie of the Year Frank Crinella (Springfield, Mass.) – who drove in a team-high two runs while adding a hit – as well as junior Eddie Newton (North Billerica, Mass.) – whose first career home run added insurance in the top of the fourth – the Warriors continued their historic single-season success against Franklin Pierce with another win on Tuesday night. Before 2013, Merrimack had never beaten the Ravens twice in one campaign, but Tuesday's win was the third consecutive against Franklin Pierce after sweeping a Sunday doubleheader on campus two weeks ago.
Out-hitting the host Ravens (32-16) by a slim 8-5 margin on the game, Merrimack added a run each in the top of the second, third, fourth and fifth to take a three-run lead that it would never relinquish. Representing the top seed in the Northeast Division and entering the day 18-1 at home this year, the Ravens' offense would muster just five hits and commit two errors to see their NE-10 Championship hopes evaporate with a first round loss.
Morency, meanwhile, gave the visitors a chance to win from the onset. The junior right-hander went the distance while yielding one unearned run on five hits and striking out six over all nine innings, besting NE-10 Pitcher of the Year Trevor Graham (8-2), who surrendered four runs – three earned – on six hits while striking out five over six innings.
Ryan Leach offered three scoreless frames for the home side, but FPU's offense could not string together any more runs than the lone one it scored in the fourth, as the Ravens dropped just their second home game of the year in 20 tries.
After rookie Mike Forgione (North Branford, Conn.) reached on an infield single with two down in the top of the second, the rookie stole second and then scored after senior Alan Pastyrnak Jr. (Bristol, Conn.) beat out an infield single of his own that induced an error at first, bringing in Forgione for the first run of the game.
Morency then found himself in trouble with runners at second and third and one down in the home half of the frame, but the second-team all-conference honoree rebounded with back-to-back strikeouts to dodge trouble. Then in the top of the third, it was Crinella blasting in the second run of the game, as his run-scoring triple into right center scored classmate Pat Florence (Lowell, Mass.) from first to put the visitors on top by two after their first three at-bats.
Then, after Morency's first 1-2-3 inning of the game, Newton provided fireworks with a leadoff homer in the top of the fourth that cleared the left field wall, his first career long ball, to triple Merrimack's advantage to 3-0. Franklin Pierce salvaged a run in the bottom of the fourth on an RBI groundout, but the Warriors promptly responded with another run in the fifth, as Florence led things with an opposite-field double into the gap in left center before scoring on a sacrifice fly, pushing the visitors ahead, 4-1, at the midway point of the game.
With Morency still going strong on the hill, Merrimack had another chance in the top of the seventh, loading the bases with nobody out thanks to a single, a hit by pitch and a walk. But the Ravens benefitted from an interference call during a double play attempt before a grounder to short ended the inning, as Leach emerged from the precarious situation unscathed.
Looking to use that momentum to its advantage, Franklin Pierce promptly started the bottom of the seventh with a leadoff single before a double play quickly erased the threat, allowing Morency to end the inning on a strikeout.
After the Warriors left two on in the top of the eighth, the Ravens looked to the top of their order to mount a rally in the bottom half; but a twin killing ended the home side's momentum again, as all-conference first team member Zach Mathieu interfered on a throw down to second base after striking out, ending the inning on an interference-bolstered double play.
Finally in the ninth, with Morency eyeing a complete game performance, a hit by pitch with one out put the final Raven of the game on base, but a 6-4-3 double play ended all hopes of a rally, and when the dust settled it was the Warriors who walked away victorious on Franklin Pierce's home turf.
Finishing the game with two multi-hit performers, six different Warriors tallied a hit for the visitors, compared to five for Franklin Pierce. Merrimack would leave seven on base, with Franklin Pierce stranding five.
Advancing to the conference's de-facto Final Four, Merrimack will play defending champion Le Moyne at a time to be determined on Thursday at New Haven. The winner of that game will meet the winner of Bentley-New Haven on Friday, with the losers also playing in an elimination game on Thursday.