NORTH ANDOVER — It was a sluggish start for the Merrimack baseball team down south, but since returning to to the Northeast in late March and opening a huge slate of Northeast 10 games, the Warriors have hit a fine groove.
This weekend, Merrimack will play a three-game series with Southern New Hampshire, which will determine who wins the NE10’s Northeast Division.
(Ed. Note — This story also appeared in Tuesday’s Eagle Tribune. Click here to read this story on EagleTribune.com)
The Warriors are 23-17 on the season, but 15-3 in divisional play; overall, the Warriors are 17-5 in the NE10 conference. Merrimack’s season started in Myrtle Beach, and then a trip to Florida, where the Warriors played a slew of New York schools as well as some regional opponents. One of those opponents was the No. 1 team in Division II, and the defending national champions, Nova Southeastern.
“We played a lot of tough opponents at the start of the year,” said infielder and captain, Mike Forgione. “That’s no excuse, though. We didn’t have everything clicking on those road trips and we needed the outcomes to be better. We didn’t have all three facets to the game going. There were days where we had two out of the three, but never all three. In conference play, since we’ve been back home, we’ve settled in. We made some lineup changes, which helped, and things have come together for us.”
The Warriors are 1-1/2 games back of SNHU entering the final weekend of the season. The Penmen are scheduled to play Franklin Pierce on Tuesday, but rain could wash that game out. Merrimack’s Tuesday game against Assumption has been cancelled.
All three games in the SNHU series will be played in Manchester, beginning on Friday night (6 p.m.). The series concludes with a double-header on Saturday (3 p.m. and 6 p.m.).
“In a short amount of time, anything can happen,” Forgione said. “Everyone is fighting for a playoff spot and that’s where we want to be. Every game is a big game. That series is going to be big, too.”
The Warriors beat Bentley on Monday, 5-1.
One facet that has clicked all season for the Warriors have been their bats. Merrimack is hitting .297 as a team, with a team on-base percentage of .368.
Six everyday starters are batting more than .300 for the Warriors this season, and Merrimack has three more players hitting .300 off the bench.
Sophomore Matthew Ronai leads the team with a .373 average, followed by senior Paul Buckley (.321), senior Cam DiSarcina (.320), freshman Joey Porricelli (.319), junior Ricky Smith (.309) and junior Mike Hoalcraft (.306). Freshman Thomas Joyce nearly is a seventh .300 hitter in the lineup, currently batting .299.
“Our hitting has been great all year,” Forgione said. “Everyone is batting close to, or over .300, which is really hard to do, especially in our league. But we always knew that our lineup would be strong. I think we knew coming into the season that everyone could hit, but it was pulling everything else together. There were times we struggled at the plate, but usually if one guy was struggling there were two or three more to make up for that. Where we struggled, really at the beginning of the year, was putting all the facets together. We’d be hitting but making mistakes defensively. Or, maybe our pitching wasn’t there yet. We had some rough patches. Now it’s all coming together and it has helped us a lot.”
The infusion of some younger players making an impact has helped as well. Of the seven players mentioned above, two are freshman and one is a sophomore.
“The young guys stepping in and putting up numbers like that is fun to see,” Forgione said. “They’ve all been working hard and getting in extra reps. It’s fun seeing that pay off for those guys and I think it’s helped with their confidence, which has helped our confidence as a team. Their play has helped us take a huge step as a team.”
Merrimack’s pitching is hitting its stride as well. Cam Monagle leads the team with a 1.33 ERA in 11 appearances (3 starts) and Anthony Lupi has a 2.31 ERA in eight starts. PJ Browne has been a strikeout machine, punching out 51 batters in 43 innings over seven starts.
Out of the bullpen, closer Nate Spielvogel has a 0.50 ERA with a whopping 31 strikeouts in 18 innings, holding opponents to just a .131 batting average. On the season, the Merrimack pitching staff has struck out 320 batters.
“Our pitching has been unbelievable lately,” Forgione said. “That makes us a really hard team to beat. If we can hit the way we’ve been hitting and get the pitching we’ve had over the last couple of weeks, we’re going to be a really hard team to play against.”
Merrimack is 18-7 since returning from a pair of southern trips. Safe to say, confidence is at a high. The Warriors hope to keep that alive heading to SNHU (ranked No. 4 nationally) and then, into the postseason.
“After Florida we were a little down,” said Forgione. “We knew we would have to hone in and win a lot of games, but we’ve been able to do that. We put ourselves back on track. We know we can play with anybody.”