WEST HAVEN, Conn. – Trailing by two runs after three innings, the Merrimack baseball team battled back with a run in the fourth before a game-deciding three-run fifth highlighted by a two-RBI triple off the bat of Northeast-10 Conference Player of the Year Casey Cotter (North Hampton, N.H.), and starter Junior Vasquez (Lawrence, Mass.) and closer Joe Mantoni (Northbridge, Mass.) used their combined efforts to hang on to that lead to power the Warriors to a 4-3, elimination game victory over Le Moyne in their second such do-or-die game of the day at Frank Vieira Field to clinch a spot in the NE-10 Championship Finals on Saturday morning against New Haven.
Now just one win shy of the school-record 30 victories set back in the mid-90s, Merrimack (29-18) will now aim for its first Northeast-10 Championship crown since 1996 when it takes on undefeated New Haven tomorrow morning (11 a.m.). In order to do so, the Warriors must win back-to-back games against the host Chargers, who went unbeaten in the winners bracket with victories over Bentley and Le Moyne over the course of the weekend.
The Dolphins (25-24), meanwhile, see their season end after an easy, 8-0 victory over the Warriors on Thursday afternoon. Despite outhitting fourth-seeded Merrimack by a 9-7 margin, Le Moyne could not strike with runners in scoring position in each of the final three innings thanks mainly to the efforts of Mantoni, who picked up his eighth save of the season with his late-game heroics.
Trailing by a run, Merrimack made its game-changing run in the top of the fifth. Rookie Sean O'Neill (Norwood, Mass.) wasted little time with a double into the gap in right center, and an infield single on a bunt attempt by classmate Pat Florence (Lowell, Mass.) put runners on the corners. Cotter then followed with a two-RBI triple to bring in the pair, and freshman Mike Forgione (North Branford, Conn.) promptly blooped a single into center to up the lead to 4-2, capping off a four-hit, three-run inning to put the Navy and Gold ahead.
That would prove to be the difference, as Le Moyne managed just one more the rest of the way to help the Warriors make their deepest postseason run since the late 1990s. Cotter accounted for the lone two-hit performance in the late game for the Warriors, while five other players added a hit. Le Moyne's Ryan Mahoney led all players with three hits, but Vasquez (3-1) was solid over six innings, striking out seven while yielding four hits and two runs to pick up his third win of the year.
It was enough to best Le Moyne starter Zach Place (4-5) yielded four runs – three earned – on five hits despite six strikeouts to limit the Dolphins. Reliever Conor Molan managed to go four string, scoreless innings out of the bullpen, but Mantoni was just as good, tossing 2 2/3 frames of scoreless, two-hit ball while benefitting from three strikeouts to lock up the win for the Warriors.
After both sides put up zeroes through the first two innings, Le Moyne edged ahead with two runs in the bottom of the third. Vasquez let up a walk and a single in consecutive at-bats before O'Neill made a fantastic diving catch in right. But immediately after, Mahoney laced a single through the left side that kicked off the lip of the infield grass, and that bounce was enough to score the runners from second and third and give the Dolphins a 2-0 advantage.
Merrimack responded in the top of the fourth after Mantoni poked a one-out double into the gap in right center. After a failed pickoff moved him to third, the Warriors had their chance with a runner at first and one away. A groundout to third kept Mantoni at bay, but senior Mark O'Flynn (Ipswich, Mass.) dribbled a ball to second base that prompted an errant throw, bringing in Mantoni to cut the deficit in half (2-1) after four innings.
After the Warriors rallied in the fifth, Vasquez had all the offense he needed and remained steadfast with his team ahead. The right-hander worked a perfect fifth before finding himself in a jam in the sixth with runners at second and third. But the Lawrence, Mass., product induced an inning-ending fly ball to left to keep the Warriors in front as the game entered the final three innings.
With Nolan in the game, the Dolphins posted a pair of scoreless innings on defense to keep the Warriors off the board, setting up the bottom of the seventh. Facing reliever Beau Batchelor (Peabody, Mass.), Le Moyne loaded the bases with one out before a bloop single drew the Dolphins to within a run (4-3) That prompted Mantoni's entrance in nearly an identical situation as the earlier game, staring at a bases-loaded, one-out jam. But the Northbridge, Mass., native dialed up back-to-back strikeouts to end the threat on an outstanding individual effort.
An inning later, Mantoni needed to buckle down after allowing a one-out single and a walk, but the righty again came through when it mattered most, forcing the Dolphins into a pair of fly outs to end the eighth. He found himself in trouble again after yielding a late base hit before a bunt put the tying run in scoring position, but Mantoni used an emphatic final strikeout to end the game, launching the Warriors into the Finals.
Merrimack and New Haven will square off in the NE-10 Championship Finals tomorrow (May 11) morning beginning at 11 a.m. The Warriors will need to win back-to-back games over the Chargers, who are the lone unbeaten team remaining in the double-elimination field, for a shot at the championship.