Next stop: Northeast Regionals

Next stop: Northeast Regionals

Showing off their team’s state championship trophy during the post-game ceremony at McCarthy Field are the “elder statesmen” of the Upper Deck Post 14 baseball team, from left, Josh Slaney, Corey Mayer, Tyler McNulty, Braedon Carney, Drew Szafranski, Steve Andrews, and Dom Cunha. (Breeze photos by Eric Benevides)
Upper Deck Post 14 repeats as Legion state champs

WEST WÅRWICK – Repeating as American Legion state champions was nice. So was getting to return to this week’s Northeast Regional Tournament at the College of the Holy Cross’ Hancock Insurance Park.

But make no doubt about it: Upper Deck Post 14 has its sights set on bigger and better aspirations down the road – namely its second trip to the American Legion World Series in the last four years.

“We want to go to the World Series,” remarked Upper Deck right fielder Tyler McNulty. “That’s our goal. Forget winning just one or two games (at the regionals). We want to win it and get to the World Series.”

McNulty talked about his team’s goals late Friday night during his team’s post-game celebration with its fans in left field after Upper Deck swept a doubleheader from Gershkoff/Auburn Post 20 by scores of 2-1 and 9-3 at McCarthy Field.

The championship was the second in a row, fourth in the last five years, and ninth state title since 1985 for Post 14, which had fallen into the losers’ bracket of the double-elimination tourney by absorbing a 1-0 loss to Gershkoff/Auburn last Tuesday, July 30, but rolled up its sleeves and won its next three games.

“It’s a testament to the program and the kids from Cumberland and Lincoln,” said Upper Deck manager Matt Allard. “They come to play and they’re dedicated to the program. We don’t show up with just eight or nine guys and hope we can field a team – we have 18 kids who know what to expect from us, and I tip my cap to them. It’s unbelievable the success this program has had over the last five years.”

For two players on the team, center fielder Drew Szafranski and first baseman Steve Andrews, the state title was their third with Upper Deck. Szafranski, Andrews, and ace pitcher Dom Cunha were also on Post 14’s 2016 team that took the field for the program’s first World Series trip to Shelby, N.C.

“I honestly think this team can make it back,” Szafranski said. “When I went (to the World Series), it was a great experience, and I think we can get back there and do really well.”

But before Upper Deck can book its flight to North Carolina, it will have to top seven other teams from across New England at this week’s regional tournament, which began on Wednesday morning with Post 14 taking on the Connecticut state champion from Stamford.

A victory in the game will send Post 14 into today’s 4:30 p.m. winners’ bracket semifinals against either the Connecticut state runner-up, Southington, or the Vermont state champion, Brattleboro.

But a defeat will push Upper Deck into today’s 9:30 a.m. losers’ bracket contest against the loser of the Southington-Brattleboro opening-round game that took place Wednesday afternoon.

In last August’s double-elimination regional tournament, Upper Deck took a quick exit by losing its first two games, but Allard hopes the experience from last season’s tourney can benefit his ballclub this time around.

“I think last year, we were just happy to be there,” he said. “But this year, we want more. We want to go out to the regionals, win them, and go to Shelby. That’s the goal. We want to win that tournament.”

Last Friday night’s multiple victories capped a hectic week for Post 14, which ventured down Route 295 to play five games in as many nights, with one of them, last Thursday’s scheduled championship game against Post 20, lasting just two innings because a transformer blew out and wiped out the electricity at the ballpark.

That game was suspended and continued the following day at 5 p.m., and the starting pitchers from the previous night, Upper Deck’s Jackson Walsh and Gershkoff/Auburn’s Cam Harris, simply picked up where they left off and did a brilliant job.

Walsh worked the first five innings to earn the win, giving up just three hits and a walk, and although he struck out only two batters, he induced nine groundball outs and allowed just five batted balls to reach the outfield grass.

Two of the hits Walsh allowed came in the fourth, and the second hit, a two-out ground single to left by Max Feroce, drove in Post 20’s run.

Harris, meanwhile, ended up with a two-hitter that saw him strike out 10 batters, including five in a row at one point, and walk no one, but he gave up two unearned runs, including a run in the bottom of the fifth inning that broke a 1-1 tie.

“He pitched really well,” said McNulty. “He had a really good curveball, and all respect to him, he dealt. He really did.”

C.J Davock, who scored the game’s first run in the second on a wild pitch, led off the inning by hustling to second on a throwing error on his soft grounder in front of the mound. He then raced to third on a passed ball, and after Braedon Carney got hit by a pitch, McNulty lofted a sacrifice fly to right that was deep enough to score Davock, who slid headfirst across the plate on a close play.

Addison Kopack then pitched the final two innings and picked up a six-out save by setting down six of the seven batters he faced.

While Post 14 struggled to generate hits in that victory, Upper Deck also had its problems in the early stages of its winner-take-all game, as Post 20 starter Andrew Clesas pitched three hitless innings.

His teammates also staked him to a quick 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning off Upper Deck starter Corey Mayer, but in the bottom of the fourth, with Gershkoff/Auburn still clinging to its 2-0 lead, Post 14’s bats came alive.

Kopack led off by lacing the first pitch he saw up the middle for a base hit, and walks to Andrews and David Bordieri soon loaded the bases and marked the end of Clesas’ night on the mound.

He was relieved by Feroce, who instantly struck out the next batter he faced, but gave up a sacrifice fly to center by Carney that allowed Kopack to tag up and score Upper Deck’s first run.

“They have a great staff and some great players over there,” Upper Deck manager Matt Allard said as he looked toward the Post 20 dugout. “We knew it was going to be a battle. Their pitchers did well and shut us down.”

“I just told them (before the bottom of the fourth inning), ‘Just get one hit,’” Allard added. “Kopack led off with a hit to start the inning, and we just kind of rolled from there.”

Upper Deck certainly rolled in the fifth by rallying for five runs to take the lead. Szafranski, who kicked things off with a bloop single to right with one out, raced home with the tying run on a wild pitch, and Nick Croteau, who followed Szafranski with an infield hit that stopped near the third-base line, scored the go-ahead run on a passed ball.

One batter later, Bordieri delivered the inning’s big hit, a two-run double to deep center, and Carney lofted another sac fly to center that boosted Upper Deck’s lead to 6-2.

In the sixth, things went from bad to worse for Gershkoff/Auburn, which was seeking its first state title since 2011. With two outs, Kopack lined a run-scoring single to left and Andrews followed with an RBI double that hit the top of the fence in center and was inches away from leaving the yard. Bordieri also came through with another run-scoring double to center.

“Our biggest thing today was to put the ball in play and get timely hits,” McNulty said.

The winning pitcher was Croteau, who tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings of three-hit relief, and Kopack, who walked twice and stole two bases, and Andrews reached base in all four of their plate appearances.

Post 14, which will take a 27-3 overall record into this week’s regionals, began the “Final Four” playoffs last Monday, July 29, by rolling to a 14-0 win over Navigant Post 85, but the following night, Upper Deck suffered its 1-0 loss to Gershkoff/Auburn.

Undaunted, Upper Deck came back the next day to take a 6-4 thriller with Collette Post 10, which held a 2-1 lead until Post 14 answered back with a run in the bottom of the fifth inning and four in the sixth.

The sixth-inning rally saw Andrews snap a 2-2 tie with an infield single that drove in Shane Calabro, and after Bordieri followed with a two-run single, Davock added an RBI single.

Kyle DaLuca and Mayer combined on a stellar one-hitter, with DaLuca picking up the win by pitching the first six innings, striking out seven, and allowing five walks, as well as Collette’s two runs and lone hit in the top of the fourth. Mayer fanned two batters in his scoreless seventh.

Offensively, Szafranski went 3-for-4 with two runs scored to lead Upper Deck’s 14-hit attack. Kopack, Andrews, Bordieri, and Davock each collected two hits, Bordieri ended the game with three RBIs, and Andrews also drove in two runs.

Upper Deck Post 14 runner C.J. Davock, bottom left, gives the “safe” sign as he safely slides headfirst across the plate with the go-ahead run, beating the tag by Gershkoff/Auburn catcher Tom Barbieri, in the bottom of the fifth inning of Upper Deck’s 2-1 victory last Friday afternoon.