In the grand scheme of things, Tuesday’s American Legion showdown between New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 and Senerchia Post 74 didn’t mean a whole lot.
Even though the game was the regular-season finale, both teams had already clinched byes through the first round of the postseason – which will be held this weekend – prior to the start of the game.
But there were a few things on the line, even if they won’t be huge advantages come playoff time – the top overall seed, and bragging rights.
NEFL claimed both.
Thanks to a dominant complete-game effort on the mound from left-hander Kyle Fitzsimmons, NEFL finished off its regular season with a 5-1 win.
The victory moved NEFL to 18-4 overall, while Senerchia fell to 16-5-1. The top teams in each of the three divisions get playoff byes, while the second-place team with the best record also gets a pass through the first round.
NEFL won the Central Division and the state’s top seed, while Senerchia fell to the No. 4 seed as the wildcard selection. Upper Deck – Post 86/14 (13-8) and West Warwick Post Two (16-6) received the other two byes.
The win on Tuesday also gave NEFL a 2-1 advantage in regular season match-ups with Senerchia.
“We’ve been in first place from the very start of the season, and we didn’t want to lose first place on the last day of the season,” NEFL manager Dave McGuirl said.
Fitzsimmons saw to it that they didn’t.
He allowed only five hits over the course of the seven innings, and just the one run. He walked two and struck out two, and despite allowing at least one base-runner in six out of the seven innings, he was always in control.
“I felt great,” Fitzsimmons said. “Everything was working. Lately I haven’t had my curveball. Today it was little loopy but it was landing in for strikes. My fastball was good.”
So was his defense, which committed two errors – one by him – but also made a number of crucial plays. It turned a three-six-three double play to get out of the fifth inning when Shawn Clayton fielded a ball at first, threw to Zach Blanchard covering second and then caught the ball back where he started the play.
It also got a strong showing from Mike Mallozzi in center field and a diving play from Teddy Dwyer at third base in the seventh, keeping the leadoff man from getting on base in a four-run game.
“They put the ball in play,” McGuirl said. “The double play was nice. It was good defense. We made all the plays we should have made. I’m happy.”
Offensively, NEFL got some help from Senerchia pitching, which doled out eight walks and hit a man.
Starter Bobby Lineberger had a hard time locating, as he only made it through 2.1 innings, while allowing two runs on six walks with a hit batter.
“He’s been throwing the ball really well for us,” Senerchia manager Chris Sheehan said. “He was just wild today. We didn’t want to let him get into too much trouble.”
Lineberger’s struggles came to light in the second inning, when he hit Dwyer and then walked Clayton and Mike Giard to load the bases with nobody out.
NEFL made him pay, getting a sacrifice fly from Mallozzi for the game’s first run before Clayton came home two batters later on a wild pitch.
“Scoring first, putting pressure on them, it definitely helped,” McGuirl said.
From there, Fitzsimmons went to work. He stranded a man in each of the first three innings, including leaving a man at third in the second.
“That was the best game I’ve ever seen him pitch,” McGuirl said. “He was awesome.”
NEFL tacked on a third run in the fourth inning. Giard reached on an infield hit, and he was pinch-run for by Kevin Hickey. Hickey stole second, advanced to third on a balk by Senerchia pitcher Dillon Manfredi and then scored on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Mallozzi.
In the bottom half of the inning, Senerchia got on the board for the first time. Mike King worked a four-pitch walk against Fitzsimmons with one out, and then scored on a double into the left-center field gap by Nick Boland.
A single by Gian Martellini then put runners at first and third with only one out, but NEFL made an important play when catcher Lee Verrier threw out Martellini trying to steal second, for the second out of the inning.
Fitzsimmons then walked Lou Umberto, but he retired Gary Geisser on a fly ball to get out of the jam without further damage.
“We had that one inning where we had a chance to score a few, but a few things can take you out of an inning,” Sheehan said. “That stuff’s going to happen.”
NEFL grabbed an insurance run in the fifth on an RBI single by Mallozzi, scoring Clayton, and then it added another one in the seventh on an RBI single by Hickey.
Fitzsimmons, on the other hand, just kept rolling. The double play got him out of a one-on, one-out jam in the fifth, and he then retired the side in order in the sixth.
In the seventh, he allowed a two-out single to Sam Boulanger but then got Rob Henry to line out to shortstop to end the game.
“Warwick-Hendricken, it’s always been a thing for us,” Fitzsimmons said. “Plus, everybody wants that top spot. We were ready to win.”
Both teams will now have some time off before beginning double-elimination tournament play on Tuesday. That process will whittle the field from eight teams to four before next weekend’s semifinals.
And both teams will enter the postseason feeling good. NEFL won its final three games after losing three in a row prior to that, and Senerchia has won nine of its last 11 league games.
“We feel pretty good,” McGuirl said. “That was a big win because we had been slumping lately. We played a good game today and won. We’re on a roll.”