NORTH ADAMS — The North Adams SteepleCats players and coaching staff knew the task ahead of them. They needed a win to stay alive in the NECBL playoffs.
The Upper Valley Nighthawks had other ideas, and they held the SteepleCats scoreless over the final five innings en route to a 7-3 win that gave the Nighthawks a 2 games to none series win.
“Not the ending that we had hoped for,” North Adams catcher Jeremy Lea said after the team had its final postgame meeting. “Looking back, you could look to all the good moments we had with each other, with the fans, with the coaches. On this field, at The Joe, we kind of took this place as our home turf and we wanted to protect it.”
For four innings, the SteepleCats were able to protect Joe Wolfe Field, taking a 3-3 tie into the fifth inning. Nighthawk relievers Zane Kmietek and Henry Leake shut North Adams down over the final 4 2/3 innings. And while the North Adams offense was kept under wraps, Upper Valley managed to score two runs in the sixth and two more in the eighth to build up a lead that was too much for the SteepleCats to come back from.
When Charles Middleton, who had two of the SteepleCats’ seven hits, struck out swinging, the game — and the season — came to an abrupt end.
“Take your hats off to Upper Valley. They played a really good game. Their pitchers pitched well and they hit when they needed to hit,” SteepleCats manager Mike Dailey said. “We just didn’t have the opportune hitting. We got a few, but we made a few errors that we didn’t need to make at that particular time, and it didn’t go our way.”
With the win, Upper Valley moves on to the Northern Division championship series. The Nighthawks will play the winner of the series between regular-season champion Keene and North Shore. The Navigators won the first game of that series on Wednesday night in New Hampshire. If the Navigators win tonight in Lynn, they would play at Upper Valley in Game 1 of the next series.
“We sometimes made our own uphill battles, but sometimes, we fought back from them too,” said Dailey. “The resiliency of this team is as good as any that I’ve coached. They battled a lot. That’s a pretty good team we were battling against. You can’t make mistakes against them. They take advantage of them.”
The SteepleCats did come back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth. Brandon Hylton led off with a single to right-center and was forced at second by Mason Hull. Justin Grech hit a possible double-play ball, but shortstop Luca Trigianti booted it to put runners on first and second.
Matt Shilling, who was 2 for 4, was up next and he pulled a single to right, scoring Hull and sending Grech to third. Grech then scored on JuJu Cason’s sacrifice fly, making it 3-3.
The SteepleCats only managed three hits and five baserunners over those last five innings. North Adams had a big chance to break the game open in the fifth when Middleton reached second on an infield single and a throwing error by Trigiani. Middleton had to hold up on John Marti’s single, when it appeared that center fielder Brett Callahan was going to catch it. Hylton moved the runners up with a ground out, but Kmietek — who came on with one out in the inning — struck Hull out to end the threat.
Upper Valley took the lead for keeps in the sixth as reliever Jordan Yoder walked Pittara to open the inning. It is an unwritten rule in baseball that leadoff walks come back to haunt a team, and that walk did haunt the SteepleCats.
Yoder did strike out Callahan. Then, on a 1-1 pitch, Andrew Walker doubled into the right-field corner to score Pittara with the go-ahead run. Walker ended up on third when Shilling was charged with an error trying to field the ball. The next batter was Kyle Novak, and he singled through a drawn-in infield to plate Walker with run No. 5.
Upper Valley added a pair of runs in the eighth on two hits and an error.
Kmietek had come into the game with a team-high three saves, and along with Leake, were the Nighthawks two late-inning relievers. After Kmietek did his job, Leake came on in the eighth. He set the side down in order.
In the ninth, the Babson right hander struck out Cason and then hit Jon Kozarian with a pitch. Kozarian went to second on a wild pitch and took third on Lea’s ground out. When Middleton swung and missed on a 1-2 pitch, that was the ball game and the season.
“We were looking for clean defense, and a couple of errors led to unearned runs and that’s going to hurt,” Kozarian said. “We’re trying to scrap something together. We’re getting runners on and looking for that key hit. We just couldn’t get it tonight.”
Upper Valley 000 302 020 — 7 10 2
North Adams 001 200 000 — 3 7 3
Allard 4 1/3, Kmietek 2 2/3, Leake 2 and Pittara. Sophy 4 1/3. Yoder 1 2/3, Boesecker 2, Benneche 1 and Lea. W — Kmietek (1-0). L — Yoder (0-1). 2B — UV: Walker. LOB — UV 12. NA 10. T — 3:00.