Ed. Note — This story also appears in Thursday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
Riley Sorenson had waited for this moment. Last Saturday in the Northeast 10 Championship game, Merrimack baseball coach Nick Barese gave Sorenson the ball, and told him to go win the Warriors a championship.
Making his first start of the season — Merrimack’s pitching staff was depleted after a battling through the double-elimination tournament, including playing a double header (beating No. 8 New Haven) twice on Saturday to win the title — Sorenson salivated at the opportunity.
He turned in six innings, scattered five hits and struck out four to lead the Warriors to a title. With the win, Merrimack earned the autobid to the NCAA Tournament from the NE10, which the Warriors will open today when they face Le Moyne at 11 a.m.
Sorenson was returning this season as a junior after missing all of last season with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
“I felt comfortable with him in that situation,” Barese said. “I’ve been through the same injury he had, so I personally could relate to his situation and his timeline. We talked at the beginning of the year and we told him that he’d probably be a bullpen guy. We didn’t want to rush him. He was probably ready to go in February, but we waited and we wanted to get him into some warmer weather. We would get him an inning and then give him some rest and then as the season went on, we shortened the rest.”
In a game against Assumption in late April, Sorenson threw four innings of relief — his longest outing of the year — and in a game against Assumption, with the Warriors trailing, Sorenson came off the mound after an inning of relief and told Barese that he wanted the ball back if the Warriors tied the score.
“At that point, I knew he felt good,” Barese said. “In the Assumption game we monitored his pitch count and it was low, so we kept him out there. He knew he had a threshold. But he’s obviously a competitor. On Saturday, we knew he’d give us a chance. He throws strikes and he challenges hitters. For him, having surgery almost 18 months ago, everything was building up to that moment. He prepared, he took care of his body, and he works harder than anyone I know. That’s a lot of rehab he went through to get to this point.”
Browne Merrimack’s Ironman
PJ Browne was unavailable for the Warriors in the championship game after turning in an ironman performance earlier in the tournament. The Merrimack ace threw at least 105 pitches in each of his last four starts and he threw more than 140 pitches twice, including once on three-days rest. In between starts, he also worked an inning of relief and gave the Warriors a save.
“I want the ball,” Browne said. “I’m a competitor. I want to help my team win. It doesn’t bother me, and I’ve prepared for these situations. I did what I could to stay healthy and I’m a senior, so I told Coach B that I want to use the bullets.”
Barese said that the coaching staff would monitor Browne earlier in the season, managing his pitches, in order to use him more come tournament time.
“We had games earlier this year where he’d get frustrated if we pulled him after 80 or 90 pitches and there would be some difficult conversations,” Barese said. “But we told him, you only have so many bullets, and we want to use more of them at the end of the year, we needed to save some.”
Browne doesn’t know what his plans are after this season. He said he’s looking at grad schools, but for now, his focus is on winning a championship with the Warriors.
“I’m coming down the stretch,” he said. “At this point, any time you go out there could be the last one ever if you’re a senior. I want to leave it all out there. That’s the approach I’m taking. I don’t want to look back and think I could have done more to help the team win.”
Merrimack Finishes Strong
The last two seasons, April has been Merrimack’s month.
Maybe it’s just familiar territory, returning from trips to the Carolinas or Florida in the early season.
The Warriors are 23-7 in their last 30 games dating back to the beginning of April, and that comes after starting the season 8-12.
“Our guys have done a good job of taking our goal step by step,” Barese said. “I think once we beat SNHU, that’s when we realize we could get there. Why not? We haven’t had a lot of success against (SNHU) in the past, so if we can get by them, why can’t we win the whole thing? We weren’t running around and telling people we were going to, but in our locker room, we knew what we could accomplish.”
The Warriors are playing with house money. No one expected them to be here. No one expected them to win a championship … except the players in that locker room.
“It’s surreal,” Browne said. “We’re just trying to have fun. We have nothing to lose. There’s a lot more pressure on the teams we’re playing. We just want to enjoy it and see what happens, that’s what we have been doing for the last few weeks.
“Earlier in the season we dropped a game to Assumption and then we lost a series to Franklin Pierce. We looked in the mirror at that point and said to ourselves, ‘ is this how we want our season to go?’ We worked harder, we got after it. It started going well after that. We just regrouped.”