By Kevin Saxe
SPRINGFIELD — Six hours and thirty five minutes. Twenty nine innings. Weather that changed on the dime and saw a steady wind make it feel much colder than the approximately 50 degrees at Archie Allen Field Saturday. That’s what the Pride had to endure on their senior day that had already been pushed back a week due to inclement weather last weekend. The Pride and the Engineers of WPI battled to a split on the day with WPI winning a pitcher’s duel 2-1 in eighteen innings before Springfield would come from behind to grind out a 6-5 win in eleven innings as nightfall fast approached just after seven pm and a little over seven hours after starting game one making for a long day of baseball.
Before game one of the doubleheader, the Pride honored the members of their senior class including graduate student Mark Joao who took part in last year’s ceremonies but got an extra year of eligibility this year. The members of the class were shortstop Brandon Russo, Joao, catcher Alex Denoyelle, pitcher Fletcher Comment, outfielder/first basemen Cam Rivest, infielder Matt Fraioli, pitcher Brian Johnson, pitcher Kenny Walton and first basemen Brandon Drabinski. After the doubleheader head coach Mark Simeone talked about the senior class and the impact they had on the program.
“They’re all outstanding men, outstanding leaders, really good teammates and guys that are really important to our team. I always talk to, especially upperclassmen about the way they go about their business has a four year effect because these young guys want to see how Russo does things or how Fraoli and Drabinski do things or how Johnson does things. It means a lot.”
For the Pride one of the key members and most consistent members was Joao.
“It’s been a whirlwind, a lot of ups and downs, especially getting hurt my sophomore year and then being able to come back. Being able to do this, this year was awesome. My teammates and coaches were super understanding. Being able to come out and play with these guys whenever I have a break has been something I’ll never forget and I’m really fortunate for the opportunity.”
In game 1 fans in attendance were treated to an old fashioned pitcher’s duel. Pride ace Brian Johnson and Engineers ace David Larson went toe to toe the way you would expect the aces of their respective teams would go in a game that meant so much.
The Pride would strike first in the fourth when sophomore Jack Simonetty laced a single to right that scored fellow sophomore Noah Bleakley. However, the Engineers would strike back on a pickoff play where the Pride recorded the out after a brief rundown but the runner from third, would beat the throw to tie it.
From there both Larson and Johnson would settle into what would turn into arguably the best collective pitching performance in the brief history of Archie Allen Field. Larson would go ten innings allowing just seven hits, one run, and two walks while striking out seven. Not to be outdone Johnson making potentially his final start at Archie Allen Field, pitched a career high 11 innings, allowing five hits, one run, three walks while striking out five.
After Johnson and Larson departed the bullpens did their part in keeping the score at 1-1. Despite countless opportunities for both teams with runners in scoring position, neither team could break through until the 18th. With the bases loaded for WPI, Fletcher Comment relieved fellow senior Kenny Walton and plunked Benjamin Chaffee sending in the go ahead run. Despite getting the tying run to third with two outs the Pride would fall for the second time in two seasons in an eighteen inning marathon. For the Pride Walton took the loss, while for the Engineers Dominic Fusco got the win in relief of Larson pitching the final eight innings of the game.
Despite the outcome of game 1 ending the Pride’s chance at the two seed and sending them to the fifth seed in the conference tournament Coach Simeone was happy with the way his team came ready to play.
“We were ready to play today. We came to the field ready to play. Our pregame activity was really focused and efficient. I felt really good about coming to the field and playing today. I think we battled our rear ends off. We had some opportunities to knock in the winning run, and it’s a credit to WPI, they’re competing on the other side of the field. We had some opportunities to get it done but it wasn’t for lack of effort and guys being ready to compete.”
After a touch over four hours and eighteen innings played, you’d think with conference tournament seeding already set, the two teams would play a simple nine inning game and move on. You thought wrong.
It seemed that game two could get away early as the Engineers got two first inning runs off Pride lefty Shawn Babineau. The Pride responded with a run in the bottom of the fourth with a bases loaded walk from Matt Fraioli, However, in the sixth Babineau got touched for two more runs and the Engineers led 4-1.
For the Pride they could’ve just accepted the loss but that’s not what this Pride team does. They fought back with two in the bottom half of the sixth before a Noah Bleakley single tied it in the bottom of the seventh at four. Senior Brandon Russo who amassed 100 career hits with a single in the 16th inning of game 1 talked about the never say die attitude of the team.
“These guys don’t like to give up to easily, as you can tell from today. Obviously that first game was a real tough loss, obviously we knew what was at stake. We knew after the loss the next game didn’t matter, but we still wanted to win and that was the big thing. We went out there with a lot of heart and battled in that second game.”
For the Pride the battle didn’t end in the seventh. After WPI scored a run in the top of the tenth off Babineau the Pride found themselves with their backs against the wall. With Sage Bray pinch running for Brandon Drabinski, who reached on a leadoff walk and then advanced to second on a groundout, Russo hit a chopper past the pitcher. The opposing shortstop Martin McCormack fielded the ball cleanly and made a good throw but Russo’s speed was too much and he beat the throw. On the back of the play, Bray who went full speed on contact from second slid home ahead of the tag from Engineers catcher TJ DellaCroce to score from second and tie the game. Simeone detailed the play after the game.
“It was a great job by Sage Bray going full tilt. That’s why I put him out there. He can run and I knew that Russo could run and that was a play I thought could happen where if Sage goes hard on contact and it’s a ground ball to the infield, Russo could beat the throw out and Bray could score the run.”
From there after a scoreless eleventh from freshmen Ben Arnold, the Pride would get first and third with one out thanks to hits from Bleakley and Simonetty. Sophomore Eddie Martinez put an end to the day when he hit a chopper to the shortstop that scored the run as Martinez’s speed made it impossible for the Engineers get him at first. The win also gave Arnold his first career collegiate win. With a split and two stellar starting performances, Simeone had this to say about Johnson and Babineau.
““Those guys are tough. They’re really good competitors and really good pitchers. They both really went at it and you could get discouraged if your team is down or not scoring runs, but those guys were focused on putting up zeros and keeping us in the game. They both battled their rear ends off.”
With the split the Pride finish fifth in the NEWMAC and will travel to MIT on Thursday for the play in game at 3:30. Simeone thinks his guys will be ready based on the postgame chat with his team.
“It was mentioned in our huddle at the end of the game, guys said ‘Hey same thing last year we went in an elimination game, at MIT on a Thursday let’s go change the outcome.’ They’re focused on that right now and getting ready to get back there and get some revenge and send them home and get us to the weekend.”
Photo courtesy Jack Margaros