WEST HAVEN, Conn. – The Merrimack baseball team hopped out to a four-run lead after one turn at the plate, but host New Haven clawed back with a slow-and-steady offensive onslaught and held on down the stretch, clinching the Northeast-10 Conference Championship with a 6-4 victory in the 11th and final game of NE-10 Championship Weekend on Saturday afternoon at Frank Vieira Field.
After dropping its first game of the weekend on Thursday against Le Moyne, the Warriors (30-19) embarked on a wild two-day, three-game winning streak that included a victory over the Chargers (33-14) earlier Saturday afternoon to force the "if-necessary" game in the double-elimination bracket. But the hosts scored the final six runs of the game to seal the Chargers' first NE-10 title in school history and deny a Merrimack side that had eyes on its fourth title overall and first since 1996.
"I am so proud of my guys for being to accomplish a great run in this tournament," head coach Jim Martin noted afterward. "There were so many positives from this week and we played great from start to finish. We hope we did enough to earn ourselves an at-large bid for the NCAA East Regional and have the right to play for a berth in the College World Series."
New Haven starter Frank Vilacha rebounded from a rough first inning and wound up with the win after going the minimum, tossing five frames while yielding four runs on five hits but became the pitcher of record after his offense gave him the lead in the bottom of the fourth.
Senior Brian Wolfendale (Methuen, Mass.) took the loss out of the bullpen and fell to 1-1 on the year after surrendering the game-deciding two runs on three hits in the fourth inning. Reliever Peter Jay locked up his 13th save of the season after tossing a scoreless final two innings of action, while senior Brett Julian (Peabody, Mass.) tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings of his own.
New Haven finished with 10 hits compared to seven for the Warriors; senior Mark O'Flynn (Ipswich, Mass.) led all Warriors with two hits, while Stephen Clout, Joe Romanelli and Brendon Buckley each registered two hits for the home side.
Both senior Joe Mantoni (Northbridge, Mass.) and junior Alek Morency (Nashua, N.H.) were named to the All-Championship Team; the former picked up a pair of saves on Saturday to propel the Warriors to the NE-10 Finals, while the latter went 2-0 over the span of the tournament with a pair of complete-game victories.
A four-run first gave Merrimack as good of a start as it could have hoped for. Senior Casey Cotter (North Hampton, N.H.) wasted no time with a single before a sacrifice moved him to second and a wild pitch put him at third. An RBI grounder brought him home for the first run of the game before Mantoni launched a two-out double into deep center to keep the inning going.
Junior Eddie Newton (North Billerica, Mass.) then followed that up with a dribbler to short, and the ensuing infield single was followed by an errant throw that brought Mantoni home and sent Newton to second. After another single put runners on the corners, O'Flynn broke for second base on a steal attempt; the subsequent throw went down to the shortstop, allowing Newton to steal home for the third run of the inning. Finally, senior Alan Pastyrnak Jr. (Bristol, Conn.) laced a run-scoring single down the left field line to make it 4-0 after a half inning.
But New Haven did not wilt at sign of first pressure, as Kyle Cullen used a leadoff triple in the second before scoring on a sacrifice to close the gap. The Chargers then got to Merrimack starter Travis Terrill (Hudson, N.H.) for two more runs in the third. Brendan O'Reilly singled in a runner from third and promptly stole second and moved to third on another single. That allowed Chris DeMorais to drive home another on a sacrifice fly, as the Chargers clawed to within one (4-3) after three frames.
Rebounding from his shaky first, Vilacha proceeded to roll through his next four innings of action, retiring 13 in a row at one point before exiting after five innings of work. That allowed New Haven to take the lead in the fifth; after the tying run came in on a bloop single, Clout pushed in the go-ahead run on a single through the left side against Wolfendale, giving the home side a 5-4 lead after four innings.
With Merrimack's bats struggling to grain traction after the productive first, Julian provided respite on defense with 2 1/3 innings of solid relief work. The senior right-hander struck out one and worked around two hits to keep the Chargers at bay over the middle portion of the game.
New Haven tacked on an insurance run against senior Beau Batchelor (Peabody, Mass.) in the eighth, as Cullen benefitted from a wild pitch to score without a throw, accounting for the final tally of the game. Pat Florence (Lowell, Mass.) blooped a two-out single to center in the top of the ninth, but Jay induced a lineout to wrap up the title for the Chargers.
Sitting eighth in the NCAA East Regional rankings last week, the Warriors will now await their fate on a possible at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament during the Division II Baseball Tournament Selection Show on Sunday (May 12) evening.
Hoping for its first-ever appearance in the Big Dance in the 34-year history of the program, Merrimack will know if it is a part of the six-team, double-elimination, East Regional field when the Selection Show airs tomorrow night at 10 p.m. on www.ncaa.com.