The heated, four-team battle for first place in the Western Division of the New England Collegiate Baseball League continues unabated.
The four teams have been within two games of each other for the past two weeks, with nobody willing to give an inch. With regular-season play wrapping up on August 1, it’s a race likely to go down to the wire.
For their part, the Danbury Westerners have kept things exciting for their fans. With a record of 23-13, Danbury is currently in second place, a half-game behind the first-place Holyoke (MA) Blue Sox. The Westerners made the race all that much tighter by hosting those Blue Sox on Tuesday night, and in a rain-interrupted match that took over four hours to play, wound up on the fat end of a 13-10 score.
The momentum went back and forth throughout the night. Holyoke took the first lead, but Danbury struck back quickly, then did so again when the visitors twice more pulled ahead. The home team took the lead for good with an eight-run fifth, but the visitors refused to go quietly, keeping things tense for the Danbury fans by scoring four runs over the last three innings.
Westerners head coach Jamie Shevchik was relieved to be on top when the last out was recorded.
“In the bottom of the fifth, when we were down a couple of runs, I was hoping for rain. I didn’t want a 1-2-3 inning, because after five, it’s an official game,” he said. “Then after we scored all those runs, I was really hoping for rain.”
Though it was sunny when the game began, clouds quickly moved in and rain threatened by the third inning. A light drizzle began in the bottom of the fifth, when Danbury sent 12 batters to the plate and scored those eight runs. The rain grew steadier, and when thunder and lightning accompanied with two out in the top of the sixth, the tarp was put on the field.
With Danbury ahead, 3-2, Holyoke had its biggest inning in the top of the fifth, scoring four times to go on top by three. Ronnie Freeman, Trey Mancini, Alex Sherrod and Sam Eberle all hit RBI singles.
The Westerners, though, struck back immediately, with Andrew Garner getting things started with a lead-off double to center in the bottom of the frame. Tyler Horan followed with a shot over the fence in right-center, for his league-leading 11th home run of the season. Horan finished the night going 3-for-6 with five RBI, putting his runs-batted-in total at 33, second best in the league, just behind Mancini’s 34.
“Horan has been huge for us, he’s absolutely on fire. He can hit for average, he can hit for power,” said Shevchik of the All-Star outfielder. “To hit 11 home runs in this league with wooden bats, that’s huge.”
Danbury collected six hits in the fifth, with Horan smacking an RBI triple in his second at-bat of the frame. Chad Morgan doubled, while Chase Butler and Mike Ford singled.
The Westerners got on the board in the third with two runs, on a solo home run by Dillon Everett and run-scoring fielder’s choice by Morgan. There was a run in the sixth, as Butler doubled, advanced on a pair of walks and scored on a passed ball. Garner led off the seventh by reaching on an error, stole second, took third on a throwing miscue, and came home on a wild pitch, for the 13th run.
After the lengthy rain delay, Holyoke kept the Westerners on their toes with two runs in each of the seventh and eighth. Tom Murphy did his best to keep his team afloat by launching a solo homer in the seventh and a two-run shot in the eighth, but it wasn’t quite enough.
It was a big win, which came on the heels of a tough loss. On Sunday, Danbury dropped a 7-6 decision to the Mystic Schooners in 11 innings. The Westerners held a 6-5 lead going into the bottom of the eighth, when Mystic tied it up. Danbury went quietly in the next three innings, getting only a single from Horan, and in the bottom of the 11th, a two-out single by the Schooners’ Simon Kudernatsch drove in the winning run.
“We’ve been toughing it out our last few games. It was hard losing that extra-inning game, and it was a long one tonight. But we’re looking good,” said Horan. “Every game is a must-win with everyone within a game of each other. At this point in the year, we’ve all got our minds set on what seed we’ll get for the play-offs, and we want the home-field advantage.”
Also in hot contention for the Western Division title are the Keene (NH) Swamp Bats and Vermont Mountaineers, both currently a half-game behind Danbury and one game behind Holyoke. The race in the Eastern Division isn’t nearly as contentious, with the Newport (RI) Gulls securely in first place by 4.5 games over the North Shore (MA) Navigators.
There will be no movement as far as the standings tonight, as the NECBL All-Star Game will be played in Lynn, MA, home of the Navigators. Horan will be taking part, as will teammates Tanner Krietemeier, Dane Opel, Nick Williams, Jimmy Reed and Andrew Garner. Dave Ciocchi was also picked for the Western Division squad, but is still recovering from an injury and will sit out.
The Westerners have two home games remaining, against the North Adams (MA) SteepleCats on Friday (7/29) and Keene on Sunday (7/31). Both start at 6:30 p.m. at Rogers Park.