NORTH ADAMS >> North Adams SteepleCats manager Mike Armstrong says the three days off he and his team had this week has enabled him to get everything ready for the start of the NECBL playoffs.
"It's great because we've been able to rest our pitching. Our bullpen and our starters will be completely rested and we'll be able to set our rotation any way we want," said Armstrong.
The SteepleCats begin a quest for their first-ever NECBL championship tHURSDAY, when they open a best-of-three series against the Valley Blue Sox at McKenzie Field in Holyoke. The second game of the series will be Friday at Joe Wolfe Field, while the "if" game is scheduled for Saturday in Holyoke.
Both teams are seeking their first NECBL championship. The SteepleCats have been in the league since 2002, while Holyoke has had a league presence since 2004.
The Blue Sox won the regular-season series 4-2. Three of the games were one-run contests, and the SteepleCats earned a victory in one of those games.
"Valley has been a tough team for us all year," said Armstrong. "I know they've won this year's series against us. Every game, with the exception of one, has been very tight and very evenly played.
"I think both teams are very evenly matched in terms of what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are."
The SteepleCats haven't played since losing what turned out to be the regular season finale on Sunday night. North Adams had been scheduled to play at Sanford on Monday but the game was rained out. Had Valley lost on Monday, the SteepleCats would have made the trip to Maine because that would have flipped the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the NECBL Northern Division playoffs. But when the Blue Sox won Monday, the SteepleCats-Mainers game was just cancelled.
The Southern Division playoffs began Wednesday, with division champion Mystic hosting Danbury and Newport hosting New Bedford in best-of-three series. In the Northern Division, champion Sanford will play the winner of Wednesday night's playoff game between Keene and Upper Valley. Upper Valley beat Winnipesaukee while Keene beat Vermont in a four-way playoff for the final playoff spot.
Armstrong said that his team is ready to go on Thursday with right-hander Ryan Tapp on the hill. Tapp only pitched once against Valley, going three innings in the second game of the season on June 10. Tapp gave up two runs on three hits. He did not walk anyone and struck out four. In his last start, Tapp went six innings. He gave up two runs on four hits and earned a no-decision. He is 3-2 with a 3.26 earned-run average.
Braxton Wilks, who leads the NECBL with a 7-1 record and has a 2.12 ERA to go with it, is slated to make the start at Joe Wolfe on Friday night. Wilks pitched against the Blue Sox on July 15, giving up four runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings.
Should the series go three games, Peter Lannoo will be the Saturday night starter. Lannoo has the only win against Valley of the three scheduled starters. He threw six innings of one-run, one-hit baseball in a victory back on July 5.
The SteepleCats made a late run to lock up a playoff berth, and did so with some hitting up and down the lineup.
"We have a lot of guys who hit the ball very hard and hit a lot of line drives. We have some guys who can run and steal some bags," said Armstrong, "and we have some guys who are unselfish and are willing to bunt or sacrifice fly guys in."
In the last seven days, Daniel Holst and Nick Riotto hit .444 and .417 respectively. They, Dustin Shirley and Easton Johnson have been the hottest hitters in the North Adams lineup. Holst leads the team with a .336 batting average while Shirley is hitting .290 and has a club-best 25 runs batted in. Ten SteepleCats have double-figure RBI totals, including Riotto. The left fielder from Penn State has been doing it from the No. 9 spot in the batting order.
"We put Nick ninth for a very specific reason," said Armstrong, who explained that Riotto had been hitting in other parts of the lineup during the season.
"Nick is clearly a good hitter for us and he is a definite role player in our batting order for driving in runs and getting on base," said the SteepleCats manager. "When we shuffled the lineup a couple of weeks ago, Nick was in a little bit of a cold streak.
"We wanted to get him going, and he got going in a big way."
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.