SteepleCats top Valley Blue Sox to force Game 3 in NECBL playoffs
Photo Gallery | North Adams holds off Valley to force Game 3 in NECBL playoffs
NORTH ADAMS — Braxton Wilks didn't lead the NECBL in wins by accident. Friday night, in showing the Valley Blue Sox why, the North Adams SteepleCats right hander kept his team alive in the playoffs.
Wilks threw seven innings of three-hit, shutout baseball and was backed up by Brian Stepniak and Tanner Bird as the SteepleCats scored a 3-1 win to even the best-of-three series at a win each.
"We were down a game, so this was win or go home," said Wilks, who was 7-1 in the regular season. "Coming in, I knew I had to bring the intensity and the energy, and set the tone. A starting pitcher always has to set the tone.
"The guys behind me picked me up when I messed up or missed a pitch. It was an all-around team win."
North Adams, 5-4 losers in 10 innings of Game 1 on Thursday, managed to leave the bad feelings from that eight-error game on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Friday night, they were clean in all facets of the game.
"We let all the negative things that came into effect last night. We kind of washed that and took the positive energy, take that and use it as motivation for tonight," SteepleCats center fielder Daniel Holst said. "We don't want to go home yet."
Holst had a good night at the plate, going 2 for 3 with an RBI.
Peter Lannoo will pitch for the SteepleCats in the rubber game tonight in Holyoke. The eventual winner of the SteepleCats-Blue Sox series will play the winner of the series between Northern Division champion Sanford and Upper Valley.
Valley starter Alec Tuohy and two relievers did a pretty good job of keeping the SteepleCat offense quiet. North Adams managed only six hits off the three pitchers, and were held scoreless over the final three innings.
In fact, the run that turned out to be the game winner, scored without a hit.
Eddie Haus, who also had two hits for North Adams, one-hopped the wall in left for a leadoff double in the fourth inning. He took third on C.J. Price's ground out. Price was robbed when Tuohy got his glove on the ball for a 1-6-3 putout. After Noah Vaughan struck out, Kyle Brennan came up. The first pitch was a short passed ball and Haus dashed for home. The throw by Valley catcher C.J. Stubbs was off target and the SteepleCats were up 2-0.
"I tell my guys to be aggressive, no hesitations and if they think they can make it, go," said North Adams manager Mike Armstrong. "I'm a very aggressive manager and I want to put pressure on the defense and force them to make a play.
"I was a catcher and it's a really hard play to go sliding and make a perfect flip to your pitcher, who is sprinting to home plate."
Wilks, who picked up his eighth win in black and gold, broke the single-season record of seven that was set by Tim Boyce back in 2008. The left-hander from Abilene Christian set the tone off the bat when he got Braxton Morris looking for the game's first out. After giving up a two-out single to Hezekiah Randolph, Wilks set down the next 14 batters.
"I was really trying to get ahead. In my last few starts, I hadn't been getting ahead of guys, getting behind in counts," said Wilks. "Today, I said I was going to get ahead, throw first-pitch strikes and go right at him.
"[Catcher John] Mazza called a great game, and whatever he wanted, I pretty much went with."
Wilks faced 25 batters in seven innings and threw 18 first-pitch strikes.
He was helped by some outstanding defense. The best example of that came in the third inning when Holst recorded all three outs. The first one was spectacular.
Cam O'Neill hit a 1-2 pitch to straightaway center field and the ball looked like it might one-hop the fence at the 385-foot mark. But Holst ran a long way and made an over-the-shoulder catch.
"I knew I had a good break on it. I put my head down and when I looked back at it, it was right there right at my glove," said Holst.
After Brian Stepniak threw a scoreless eighth, Valley got to closer Tanner Bird for a run on two hits, but Bird struck out O'Neill — the potential go-ahead run — to end the game and force the SteepleCats to order a bus for another ride to Holyoke.
"Going down to Holyoke is tough for us. We've had our troubles down there," said Armstrong. "We're going to put that out of our minds and we're going to play hard."
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.