WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- In the highly-competitive Little East Conference baseball season, beating an opponent even once is difficult. Winning both games of the regular-season two-game set is even harder. And completing a three-game sweep is the most difficult of all.
Rhode Island was able to make it three wins this year over Eastern in the opening round of the LEC tournament Wednesday and it vaulted the Anchormen into a winners’ bracket game Thursday.
Thursday, top-seeded University of Southern Maine failed in its bid to go 3-0 this year against Eastern, however, and the loss sent the Huskies to the losers’ bracket Saturday and seriously dampened their prospects of unseating No. 2 Massachusetts Boston as the two-time defending champion.
Saturday afternoon at 3:30 it will be Eastern’s chance for a clean sweep when the once-beaten and No. 4 seeded Warriors and once-beaten fifth-seeded University of Massachusetts Dartmouth meet on the third day of the double-elimination tournament at Ed Flaherty Field on the USM campus. A third win over the Corsairs this season keeps Eastern’s championship hopes alive and sends it directly to Sunday’s final day, where it would need to win twice – likely against the top two seeds -- to secure an unprecedented tenth conference tou rnament title.
While USM’s failure to complete a sweep of Eastern Thursday has put them at a disadvantage, it was not crippling. Eastern’s failure to complete a trifecta against UMD, however, will be, a loss sending Eastern packing for its return trip to Willimantic.
Eastern and UMass Dartmouth – two of the Original Six Little East institutions -- are not exactly strangers when it comes to LEC tournament competition. In fact, the ancient rivals will clash for the seventh straight year in the tournament, 19th time overall, with Eastern holding an 11-7 advantage.
The teams have met five times after the first round of the tournament, with Eastern winning four. Most recently, in last year’s losers’ bracket final, Eastern prevailed,7-4, and went on to the championship round.
Behind senior ace righty Matt Cronin, UMD took UMass Boston into extra innings in the first round Wednesday before succumbing in the 11th, 2-1. Thursday, the Corsairs stayed alive by outlasting No. 6 Castleton University, 12-9 in an elimination game.
After losing in the bottom of the ninth, 5-4, against No. 3 Rhode Island Wednesday, Eastern got stellar pitching from seniors lefty Nick Rascati (Wallingford) and Cole Ogorzalek (Portland) to upend No. 1 seed and No. 2 nationally-ranked Southern Maine, 4-1, Thursday, to advance.
During the regular season, Eastern senior right Jordan Muchin (West Hartford) outdueled Cronin – last year’s LEC Pitcher-of-the-Year – by a score of 5-0 in Eastern’s first-game win at the Eastern Baseball Stadium. In the second game, junior righty John Parker (Brunswick, ME) allowed five runs over five innings but was credited with his first win of the year when the Warriors reached UMD sophomore righty Logan Maitland for seven runs in four innings in a 12-6 victory. It was Eastern’s first regular-season sweep of the Corsairs in seven years.
Maitland (3-4, 7.77) is a candidate to open on the mound Saturday and will be opposed first-year sophomore righty transfer Zach Player (East Hampton) (2-1, 3.43), who did not appear against UMD in the regular season. Despite throwing only 9 2/3 innings last year at Division II Franklin Pierce University, Player was named to the Northeast 10 All-Rookie Team. He was 2-0 in five games out of the bullpen with a 6.52 ERA. He did not pitch last summer or last fall following arm surgery. Player did not pitch as a senior at East Hampton, either, due to arm surgery, but was named first-team all-conference as a junior at the utility position.
In Eastern’s sweep, six pitchers limited UMD to a team batting average of .200. Senior William Coleman (Northford) had a .750 on-base percentage in those games for Eastern and scored four runs. Sophomore Luke Broadhurst (Stafford) had a double and home run and reached five times, scored three times and driving in three runs and freshman Matt Malcom (East Lyme) homered twice, drove in five runs and scored three.
Sophomore pitcher/outfielder Tucker Hetherman, who was the starting and winning pitcher Thursday against Castleton, had two hits and drove in three runs in the second game against Eastern during the regular season, but was the only UMD player to drive in more than one run.
In the LEC tournament, Eastern is batting just .182 but has committed only three errors, and the staff ERA is 2.60. Opponents have helped Eastern’s cause by committing seven errors.