Pittsfield 14s hungry for more as they head to Babe Ruth regionals
PITTSFIELD — A group of 14-year-olds from Berkshire County have something to prove this week to the rest of New England.
The Pittsfield 14s travel to Rochester, New Hampshire on Thursday for the 2019 Babe Ruth New England Regional. They open pool play on Friday with a game against the Eastern Massachusetts representative at noon.
The local squad is coming off a strong travel season playing mostly in New York, which means New England's last view of coach Mike Taylor's team was an 0-3 performance at the 13-year-old regional last summer, with the team eliminated before bracket play began. With the Westfield program not fielding a team this year, Pittsfield heads straight into the regional without showcasing anything at the state level.
"There are teams we go into games against, thinking and knowing, 'OK, this is a team we can handle,'" said Taylor, who is in his fifth year coaching All-Stars and second with this group. "I think that is probably how most of those teams at regionals will be looking at us."
What Pittsfield does have to draw on is a 9-1 record in travel play, and a rededicated effort to get stronger, healthier and simply put more bats on balls.
"We're hitting 10-times better now. It takes a lot of stress off when we can hit like this," said pitcher/shortstop Matt Lee. "If we go into regionals like this, we'll do a lot better. It's just confidence."
Lee was unable to help his team on the mound or at his customary shortstop position last year due to an arm injury, shifting him to mostly outfield work. At full strength in 2019, Lee is Taylor's likely No. 1 pitcher, and starting shortstop when not on the hill. Last year's ace Collin Merwin, who pitched the 13s by Westfield at the state level in 2018, returns as a capable arm, along with steady strike-thrower Adam Lazits.
That trio will do the heavy lifting on the mound for Pittsfield, and Taylor also has three catchers he can rotate in and out. One of those, Nick Guachione, has developed into a vocal leader on and off the field.
"Matt leads by example, plays the game real hard," said Taylor of his leadership structure. "Guach has always been one of the better players, but he's taken more of a vocal role this year. Now that he's 100 percent, the confidence is back. Those two are relentless."
Guachione was affected by an injury during last year's run, as well. Taylor is considering him at second base to solidify the middle of the infield, which would slide either Brandon Mazzeo or Chase Doyle behind the plate.
Mazzeo showed a lot during house league this year to earn his spot, while Doyle is a versatile athlete who spent his spring playing baseball at Mount Greylock.
"Last year I was kind of the new kid, so I was trying to fit in. But I feel I fit in pretty well right now," said Doyle. "We won states last year, and thought we should do pretty well, but we didn't do that well in regionals.
"We're definitely more than that now. This year we can actually hit."
That's the sticking point for Taylor's crew this summer. From top to bottom, the team can rake.
"A lot of these kids were big home-run hitters in Little League and very successful at that level. They came to the big field and had a hard time adjusting," said Taylor of last year. "We threw the ball well and defense was solid, but we struggled at the plate. We had about four hits a game."
That number has rocketed up this season, thanks an offense brimming with confidence led by hard-hitting Tyler Gaudette.
"I definitely think we can go past regionals. We're a strong defensive team, and we're looking like a strong offensive team," Gaudette said. "I don't think we were into it last year. Defensively we were good, but we couldn't hit anything. This year, we're still defending, but really hitting the ball well."
The other aspect of this hoped-for turnaround an attitude change that has come with the maturation of young stars.
"We're definitely more positive this year, staying up as a team. Everyone is keeping each other up," said Guachione. "Our attitude needed to change. How we play needed to change. I just want to make sure everybody is in the right position and keeps talking."
Taylor called last year's team at this point of the year, "happy to be there," while this year the group is "a little bit hungrier."
The Pittsfield 14s return all nine starters from last year's squad, plus a handful of newcomers like Paul Roloson and Santino Arrienti. They have been working at this since before Christmas, and were in the midst of two-a-days a week before the tournament. According to Gaudette, that hunger hasn't subsided.
Taylor noted his team spent time over the winter working out with University of Albany associated head coach Drew Pearce.
"This year, I've got to give it to them. They've done a lot of band strengthening, a lot of hitting, a lot of core strength. Most teams don't do that," he said. "I've seen a lot of growth from a lot of these kids."
Portland, Maine is the defending New England champion for this rising age group. The winner advances to the Babe Ruth World Series in Demopolis, Alabama the week of Aug. 8.
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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