Hawks Flying High, Soar Into Second Place

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks pitcher Levi Thomas, left, delivers a first-inning pitch as the Keene Swamp Bats’ Mitchell Golden warms up in the on-deck circle during Thursday’s NECBL game at Alumni Field in Keene, N.H. Valley News — Greg Fennell

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks designated hitter Ty Adcock awaits his turn at the plate during the second inning of an NECBL baseball game with the Keene Swamp Bats at Alumni Field in Keene, N.H., on Thursday, July 26, 2018. Valley News — Greg Fennell

  • Keene Swamp Bats pitcher Kyle Whitten, right, delivers a first-inning pitch to the Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Greg Hardison (17) during an NECBL baseball game at Alumni Field in Keene, N.H., on Thursday, July 26, 2018. Valley News — Greg Fennell

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks pitching coach Tom Hudon, bottom left, watches second-inning action with relief pitcher David Sampson during an NECBL baseball game with the Keene Swamp Bats at Alumni Field in Keene, N.H., on Thursday, July 26, 2018. Valley News — Greg Fennell

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2018 11:39:17 PM
Modified: 7/26/2018 11:39:24 PM

Keene, n.h. — Here come the Upper Valley Nighthawks, just in the nick of time.

Levi Thomas turned in his best performance of the season in a seven-inning masterpiece against the Keene Swamp Bats on Thursday, striking out eight batters in the Nighthawks’ 3-0 victory at Alumni Field.

Chris Berry and Anthony Quirion hit home runs for all the offense Upper Valley needed, and relief pitchers Brian Weissert and A.J. Franklin pitched back-to-back scoreless innings to shut the door.

The decision had critical implications in the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Northern Division playoff race, a three-way battle between the Nighthawks (22-17), Keene (21-18) and Sanford Mainers (20-17) for the division’s final two playoff spots.

Thursday’s win against its division rival moved Upper Valley into sole possession of second place, a full game ahead of the Swamp Bats and Mainers with five regular-season games remaining. Sanford’s game on Thursday against the Mystic Schooners was rained out. The Mainers have two games in hand.

It also gave the Nighthawks the tie-breaking season series over slumping Keene, which has lost its last four games. The Swamp Bats had not been shut out all summer until Thursday.

“I think it’s been there all summer long,” Upper Valley head coach Jason Szafarski said. “We just weren’t getting those timely hits. We always had guys on base, top five in the league in hitting, top three in defense and top three in pitching. Eventually those statistics take care of themselves and you start seeing results.

“We had some key injuries,” he added. “Guys have settled into roles, settled into responsibilities and they’re kind of taking control of it. Maybe some guys aren’t hitting — I still believe that they will hit — as long as we keep playing defense and we get pitching like that, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

It was the kind of performance Thomas had been waiting all summer for.

The Cullman, Ala., native struggled in his first month and a half with the Nighthawks, suffering three straight losses in July. He entered Thursday’s game with an 0-3 record and a 5.12 ERA in six starts and 26⅓ innings pitched, a string of disappointing results after a stellar spring with Troy University.

But Thomas was locked in against the Swamp Bats. He worked his way out of jams in the first and seventh innings, each time forcing Keene to strand two runners on base. In the first, Thomas struck out the Bats’ No. 4 batter, Brandon Smith, and forced Cordell Dunn Jr. into a fielder’s choice. In the seventh, Thomas struck out back-to-back batters to preserve the shutout.

“I’ve been really pounding the flat ground with (Nighthawks pitching coach Tom) Hudon,” Thomas said. “Working on extension, not leaving balls up. That was my biggest problem, not my stuff but location. I figured that out.

“The confidence is back up,” he added. “I go out there knowing if I do my job, the offense will back me up. It’s a great feeling.”

Thomas got the win in his longest outing of the season, the latest in a string of stellar starts from Upper Valley pitchers. The sophomore said he left the field feeling like a different pitcher.

Swamp Bats starter Kyle Whitten, from the University of Virginia, kept Upper Valley off balance through the first three innings, allowing no hits while striking out two. The Nighthawks’ first run of the night was a solo home run from Anthony Quirion in the top of the fourth, his sixth of the season, over the Alumni Field scoreboard.

Chris Berry added to the lead one inning later, slamming a 3-1 pitch off the scoreboard with a bang that drove in two runs. It was Berry’s sixth home run of the summer and second in as many games at the Keene ballpark.

“I think it’s just the fact that we’re facing great pitching,” said Quirion, who finished the game 1-for-4. “We knew we had to go into every game with a good approach and capitalize on our chances. I think guys are doing the small things and it’s leading to wins.

“We lost some guys (to injury), but at the end of the day, we want to make the playoffs,” he added. “We’ll go to war with whoever we’ve got.”

Weissert, from Fordham, took over in the eighth inning for Thomas and got out of a jam with two runners on and one out, when he struck out Keene’s Joe Breaux and Smith. Franklin, from Vanderbilt, got two strikeouts in the ninth for his eighth save.

Upper Valley is 6-2 since dropping both ends of a doubleheader to the Vermont Mountaineers on July 15, a surge that has put the team in postseason contention for the third straight summer. The Nighthawks face the Northern Division-leading Valley Blue Sox today at Mackenzie Stadium; they are 0-3 against the Blue Sox this summer and hold a 2-6 all-time record in Holyoke, Mass.

But Thomas said he’s seen a different Nighthawks team emerge in the last week.

“Something clicked,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. Something’s different in the dugout. You can tell.”

Notes: Upper Valley added two athletes from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth baseball team before the signing deadline this week. One is Claremont native and Stevens High graduate Chase Hussey, who joins the squad after pitching only 3⅔ innings in four appearances for the Corsairs this spring. The other is Kenny Michael, who played 39 games in the outfield for UMass Dartmouth, batting .271 with 21 RBIs and 27 runs. … Fan voting to select the final two athletes for the NECBL’s All-Star Game closed on Thursday night. Nighthawks representative Jordy Allard, the Hartford High graduate from Southern New Hampshire, was in second place with more than 1,000 votes as of Thursday afternoon. The winner will be announced today. … A flock of geese interrupted the game in the sixth inning, flying across the diamond and chasing Nighthawks assistant coach Mat Pause out of the first base coach’s box. … Cole Stetzar (Saint Joseph’s) gets the start vs. Valley today.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

Sign up for our free email updates
Valley News Daily Headlines
Valley News Contests and Promotions
Valley News Extra Time
Valley News Breaking News

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy