The beginning isn’t everything but in the grind of the American Legion Baseball playoffs, it certainly means a lot. New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 was reminded of that last year, when it took a shocking loss in its opener in the double-elimination portion of the state tournament. NEFL fought back from that loss but not all the way back. It saw its season end short of a state title.
This year, NEFL is once again one of the favorites after posting the best regular-season record in the state. But, with last year as the backdrop, it’s focused solely on game one.
“That’s a game you’ve got to win,” said manager Dave McGuirl. “Last year, we lost the first one and it’s tough to come back. This year, we’re going to try to win it.”
NEFL’s opponent was still to be determined as of Monday afternoon, pending results of preliminary-round series and the re-seeding that follows. NEFL will play at 7 p.m. tonight at McCarthy Field in West Warwick, the fourth game of the day.
NEFL could be matched with No. 9 Gershkoff Auto Body/Auburn Post 20 of Cranston, No. 10 South Kingstown Post 39 or No. 11 East Bay-Riverside Post 10. Whoever the opponent is, nothing will come easy. Last year, it was eighth-seeded Navigant Credit Union who knocked NEFL off in the first round.
“At this point, anybody can beat anybody,” McGuirl said.
NEFL won’t have to worry about Navigant in the first round this time – the defending state champs are seeded fourth and had a bye to the final eight – but they could run into the next Navigant. South Kingstown and East Bay both split the first two games in their preliminary-round series, while a veteran Gershkoff team – a longtime NEFL/Shields rival – swept West Warwick.
NEFL will just try to focus on itself. When the team takes the field tonight, a full week will have passed between games, by far the longest stretch of the summer. Time off may have been a factor in last year’s first-round loss, but NEFL wasn’t going to complain about getting the time again. The team took a few days off last week then practiced several times leading up to Tuesday’s opener.
“Sometimes you’re better off playing, sometimes you’re better off with the rest,” McGuirl said. “You never know. The kids enjoyed the time off and we’ve been working hard the last couple of days.”
NEFL’s focus will be on sticking to the formula that made it successful in the regular season. The team finished 19-3 with eight straight wins to close the campaign. Pitching, defense, speed and timely hitting are NEFL’s trademarks.
The offense is led by legion veterans like Nick McGuirl, T.J. Boyajian, Shawn Clayton, Branden Hoxsie and Mike Mallozzi, but everybody has had a hand in the success. When some of those veterans got off to slow starts, newcomers like Ryan Rotondo, Ben Mann and Danny Greaves picked up the slack. Hot streaks have come and gone since then, but the results have been steady.
“It’s a unique lineup because just about anybody can come up with a big hit,” Dave McGuirl said. “Our ninth batter could easily be our third batter. Everybody can contribute, and they’ve all been hitting lately. That’s a good thing in the playoffs.”
Speed has also been a key. Most everybody in the lineup is a threat to steal a base, while Mann, Boyajian and Mallozzi are at another level – they’re rarely caught.
“We’ve won a lot of games with our speed,” McGuirl said. “We’ve had some close games, and we win those games because we’re aggressive and taking extra bases.”
On the pitching side, NEFL has been led by its top three starters – Ryan Charette, James Meizoso and Andrew Bracken. McGuirl will wait until he knows the opponent before deciding on a game-one starter, but all are capable.
“All three of those guys had great summers,” McGuirl said.
It all adds up to a contender, and NEFL hopes it has the one intangible that could make the biggest difference. With a veteran team that’s been one of the best every year – but not a champion since 2010 – it’s about desire.
“In American Legion playoffs, a lot of it is the will,” McGuirl said. “Who wants it more? Nine innings every day over the course of a week, in hot weather – it’s a grind. So far, we’ve had great attendance at practices and the kids seem to be looking forward to it. We’ll see.”
Tuesday’s action begins with Senerchia Post 74 playing Navigant Credit Union at 10 a.m. No. 3 R&R Construction plays at 1 p.m., and No. 2 Upper Deck plays at 4 p.m., with opponents still to be determined.