He knew it was going to be a near-impossible task to get all the way to the top of the heap after dropping the first game of the eight-team, double-elimination American Legion playoffs, but Dave McGuirl still thought his New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 team had a chance.
And NEFL did have a chance – it just came up a little bit short.
After losing that first game, NEFL rallied to win three consecutive games to put itself into the losers’ bracket final against Navigant Credit Union/Post 85 on Saturday. But after playing a game earlier in the day, a slow start took a toll and fatigue set in, as NEFL couldn’t find much offense in a 6-2 defeat.
The loss ended its season shy of a title after NEFL was the top seed in the state thanks to a dominant regular season. It finished as one of the final three teams remaining.
“Eighteen innings, in this heat,” McGuirl said. “We beat our archrivals this morning. These guys came hard at them, and I don’t know, maybe they ran out of gas.”
NEFL’s first game of the tournament was last Tuesday, when it immediately fell behind the eight-ball with a 9-1 loss to eighth-seeded Navigant.
From there it was a grind.
Behind a complete-game shutout from Shane Johnson, NEFL knocked off West Warwick Post Two 2-0 on Wednesday to stay alive.
From there, after getting rained out on Thursday, NEFL resumed play on Friday against Hurd Auto Mall, where it held on for a 7-5 win behind 7.2 innings on the mound from lefty Ryan Morris. NEFL used a four-run fourth inning – with RBI’s from Lee Verrier and T.J. Boyajian – to take control.
That brought NEFL to the final four, where it took on Gershkoff Auto Body/Auburn Post 20 on Saturday afternoon.
Gershkoff jumped on top 1-0 in the first, but NEFL came back to score three runs in the fifth. It tacked on two more in the eighth, and kept Gershkoff at bay in the ninth for a 5-2 victory. Kyle Fitzsimmons was dominant on the mound, and suddenly NEFL was only one win away from the state finals.
Next up was Navigant, a team that had lost 3-0 to Senerchia Post 74 on Friday night in the winners’ bracket final.
Despite playing already that day – and once the day before –NEFL felt good heading in.
“Pretty confident,” McGuirl said. “Everyone was pretty confident.”
Navigant changed that quickly.
In the top of the first inning, Navigant got to NEFL starter Branden Hoxsie for two runs. Brandon Perrico singled home E.J. Torres with the first run before the second run came home on an error.
Tired and with its backs against the wall to begin with, NEFL was already down 2-0 before coming up to bat.
“I think if we had scored first it would have been a different game,” McGuirl said. “If we had gone up two or three nothing, it would have been a different game.”
Instead, NEFL’s bats stayed silent, and the game began to slip away.
NEFL didn’t pick up a hit through the first four innings against Navigant starter Kory Lawrence, but it still had opportunities. It had two runners on in the first, one in the second and one in the fourth – all by virtue of walks – but could do nothing with any of them.
“We’ve struggled hitting since we got back from Saratoga (in mid-July),” McGuirl said. “Hitting is like that, even at the Major League level. Teams go through 10, 12 games where they don’t hit. And then they do hit. It’s one of those things.”
Hoxsie kept Navigant to the two runs until the fourth, when it went up 3-0. Matt Bare’s one-out single scored Brandon Rainville, putting Navigant on top 3-0.
In the top of the fifth, Navigant grabbed two more runs, as consecutive singles followed by consecutive errors made the game 5-0, and it became clear that NEFL’s time was running out.
“I thought he pitched great,” McGuirl said of Hoxsie. “Branden, he leaves it all on the field every time he plays. He gives it his all. What are you going to do?”
In the bottom of the fifth, NEFL finally got its first hit off Lawrence when Verrier looped a ball into center field, but he was quickly gunned down at second trying to steal by Bare, ending the inning.
NEFL had a chance to get back in the game in the sixth. Nick McGuirl walked with one out, and Hoxsie walked with two outs. That drove Lawrence from the game. Aaron Catarina took his place and immediately walked Teddy Dwyer to load the bases.
But pinch-hitter Mike Giard grounded back to Catarina on the first pitch of the at-bat, stranding all three runners.
“Every ball they hit fell in,” Dave McGuirl said. “We hit a couple shots right at people.”
NEFL put another runner on in the seventh by virtue of a walk, but could do nothing there either.
Meanwhile, Navigant extended its lead to 6-0 on an RBI double from Andreas Brackett in the top of the eighth.
“I watched [Navigant] last night against Senerchia, they get shutout 3-0,” McGuirl said. “I play them, and they have nine Barry Bonds in the box. Some teams just have your number I guess.”
In the bottom half of the inning, NEFL managed to get on the board when Giard scored Zach Blanchard with a single, but Catarina again got out of a bases-loaded jam when he got Colin Stamps to fly out to end the frame.
“The hitting wasn’t there today,” McGuirl said.
Andrew Bracken came on to pitch the ninth for NEFL, and he stranded a runner at second to keep the game at 6-1. In the bottom half, NEFL again threatened, as it loaded the bases with two outs and then got a run on wild pitch. But that was the last of the damage, as Navigant steered out of trouble once more to finish the job.
The win over NEFL was the beginning of a championship run for Navigant, who beat Senerchia twice on Sunday to win the state title.
For NEFL, it was a disappointing end to a season in which the goal – a title – was realistic. But the team couldn’t quite overcome the opening loss of the tournament.
“They gave it their all,” McGuril said. “They just came up a little short.”
The future is bright, though, as several players should be back next season, including a pitching staff that will only lose Fitzsimmons.
NEFL will be poised for another run.
“Pretty much the whole pitching staff coming back next year,” McGuirl said. “I’m losing Kyle Fitzsimmons. Should be a good team going back.”