It’s been a great summer for the New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 American Legion team.
Now comes the quest for a great ending.
NEFL is the top seed for the playoffs. After a bye through the weekend’s first round, the team will open double-elimination play today at 4 p.m., at McCarthy Field against Navigant Credit Union of Woonsocket.
For a NEFL team that has been at the top of the standings since day one, the goals are understandably high.
“It’s a pretty confident team,” said manager Dave McGuirl. “They’re going into it expecting to win the thing.”
Warwick teams have won two of the last three state championships, with Shields Post 43 winning in 2009 and NEFL taking the title in 2010. Gershkoff Auto Body/Auburn Post 20 of Cranston won the title last year. NEFL will be seeking its first championship since combining with Shields last season.
And the team has good reason to be confident.
NEFL roared out of the gates this summer, winning five games before some teams had even started their season. That gave NEFL a head start, and nobody ever caught up. The team won 14 of its first 15 league games.
After returning from a tournament in New York, NEFL had one lull where it lost three straight – including one to hard-charging Senerchia Post 74 – but the team rebounded to win its final three games and finish at 18-4.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” McGuirl said. “We struggled for a couple of games there when we got back from New York. I’m going to write it off to just being gassed. The last couple of games, the energy’s been back up and we’ve played well.”
The cherry on top of the regular season was a 5-1 win over second-place Senerchia in the season finale last week. The victory clinched the No. 1 overall seed and gave NEFL even more momentum as it heads for the playoffs.
“We’ve been in first place since the beginning of the season, so to lose it on the last day could have had a negative effect on us,” McGuirl said. “But we got the win and we got the one seed. It definitely doesn’t hurt.”
NEFL has had a full week off since the season finale, while their opponent won a preliminary-round series over the weekend. But NEFL isn’t expecting to see any rust as the eight-team double-elimination round gets underway.
“It’s not like we’ve just been sitting around,” McGuirl said. “We took a couple of days off and then we practiced and had a scrimmage Saturday. I think we’ll be ready to go.”
And NEFL will be ready to follow the same formula that worked all season.
It starts with pitching, where NEFL figures to have an edge on every team in the state. Kyle Fitzsimmons, Kevin Hickey, Branden Hoxsie and Ryan Morris have gotten the bulk of the starts and have all impressed. Hickey leads the group with a 1.60 ERA, Morris is at 1.97 with 28 strikeouts, Hoxsie has a 3.07 ERA and Fitzsimmons has a 3.35 ERA. Fitzsimmons also tossed a complete game in his last start.
Andrew Bracken and Colin Douglas have also pitched well, while Shane Johnson is a weapon few teams have. Johnson has pitched mostly in relief but leads the team with 33 strikeouts. McGuirl plans to keep him in a relief role for the playoffs.
All in all, NEFL has a pretty good setup, especially with games now moving to nine innings for the postseason.
“I’m confident,” McGuirl said. “They’ve been good all year so there’s no reason to think they won’t do it in the playoffs. The games we’ve lost this year have been because we didn’t play defense or didn’t hit. I don’t think we’ve had a bad-pitched game all year.”
On the other side, NEFL has been solid with the bats and carries a .300 team batting average into the playoffs. Leadoff man T.J. Boyajian leads the club with a .380 average, Zach Blanchard is hitting .352 with 11 extra-base hits and Teddy Dwyer is hitting .342. Nick McGuirl has been a standout near the top of the order, while Mike Giard leads the team in RBI with 19. Hoxsie, Lee Verrier, Mike Mallozzi and Shawn Clayton have been key contributors, as well. NEFL has also stolen 50 bases, while getting caught just eight times.
When the team takes the field Tuesday, NEFL is just hoping to keep things going.
“We’ve had a good year,” McGuirl said. “You’ve got to be good – pitching and defense – and you’ve got to be a little lucky too.”
NEFL beat Navigant, its first-round opponent, 7-3 in the regular season. Navigant beat Post 29 in its preliminary-round series.
The playoffs continue every day this week, with the championship scheduled for Saturday at McCarthy Field.