A New Chapter: Nighthawks Begin Title Pursuit Tonight

  • Nighthawks pitcher Ashton Raines rakes the field after practice at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., Aug. 3, 2017. Raines will start for the Nighthawks in Friday night's playoff game. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Upper Valley Nighthawks' Matt Sanders swings at a pitch from hitting coach Mat Pause during batting practice at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., Aug. 3, 2017 in advance of the Nighthawks' playoff game Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Keller Bradford, left, works on his pitching with coach Tom Hudon, middle, and teammate Cory Gill, right, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., Aug. 3, 2017 in advance of the Nighthawks' playoff game Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2017 11:53:49 PM
Modified: 8/4/2017 4:40:35 PM

White River Junction — Head coach Jason Szafarski and the Upper Valley Nighthawks have spent the last two weeks playing cautious: Don’t let anyone get hurt, don’t overtax any pitchers and don’t do too much in a stretch of unimportant games that might slow a run at the franchise’s first New England Collegiate Baseball League championship.

The Nighthawks, who have occupied first place in the Northern Division since the second week of the summer, clinched an NECBL playoff berth early last week and secured the No. 1 seed in the North on July 29, giving Szafarski, his staff and Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane plenty of time to think about what Upper Valley’s ultimate lineup would look like.

They’ll give the Valley Blue Sox a taste of it tonight at the Maxfield Sports Complex in game one in a best-of-three divisional championship series to determine which team will advance to the NECBL finals. Valley defeated the Keene Swamp Bats, 5-0, in the Northern Division wild-card game at Mackenzie Stadium in Holyoke, Mass., on Thursday night.

The wait for meaningful baseball is over.

“There was no point where I rested guys,” Szafarski said after a Thursday morning practice at Maxfield. “It makes it easier. Even Saturday playing Valley, we played everybody so that they wouldn’t come out flat tomorrow. … I just didn’t want to go in with a sense that we were too rested and not ready to play.

“I think we definitely accomplished what we were trying to do,” he added. “Like just playing Saturday, (with) high energy against a team that we could eventually be playing, helped us prepare for what this series will be.”

The Plymouth Pilgrims defeated the defending NECBL champion Mystic Schooners, 7-3, in the Southern Division wild-card contest on Thursday, and will play game one of its divisional final against the No. 1 seed Ocean State Waves tonight.

The Nighthawks and the Blue Sox have been the Northern Division’s top two clubs all summer, so a postseason meeting between the teams shouldn’t come as a surprise. Valley won the season series, 3-2, although one of those Sox’ wins was the second game of a doubleheader at Mackenzie Stadium absent Frankie Gregoire, one of the Nighthawks’ top hitters, who went down with a hamstring injury in the opener and missed the nightcap. Another, Saturday’s 10-9 loss at Maxfield, needed 13 innings to decide.

Mackenzie has also been less than friendly to the Nighthawks in their first two seasons in the NECBL. Upper Valley is 1-4 there, with its only win coming on July 16, 2-0.

Ashton Raines, the Bloomsburg product who finished the regular season with a league-low 1.39 earned-run average, gets the start tonight for Upper Valley. Raines, an NECBL All-Star, is 4-0 with 33 strikeouts, 10 walks and 30 hits in 40 innings. He’s also the Nighthawks’ best pitcher at home and can recover quickly if Upper Valley needs him in a potential NECBL championship series.

“I think we’re just going to try and have some fun and win a championship,” Raines said. “I think a lot of guys are itching to go home, too. So it’s kind of a weird feeling, overall.

“I’ve pitched here a bunch of times,” he added. “I think it’ll just be another game. We’ve beaten Valley a bunch of times. I feel like we can do it again. My mentality is to just come out and keep pitching the way I’ve been pitching. I think, maybe guys in the field will do what they’ve been doing and we’ll be able to pull out a win.”

Starters Cam Alldred and Joe DeRosa also are available for the postseason, as is Paxton Stover, Mike Coss and newcomer Jacob Nappi, from Felician College. Danny Wirchansky, one of Upper Valley’s best pitchers this summer with a 4-1 record and 2.51 ERA in seven starts and 39⅓ innings, has gone home with arm fatigue and will not be available for the playoffs.

The bullpen is intact minus Troy reliever Will Carnley, who left early this week. Closer Cory Gill will be available for Upper Valley’s first series, but not the championship. Sean Frontzak remains a setup man option in the bullpen, as does Keller Bradford, David Sampson and hard-throwing newcomer Kody Gardere, from Florida’s Indian River State.

“I think our guys want to win, which is important,” Crane, the GM, said. “Certainly, when you had the kind of season we’ve had, you want to end it with the win. I think we’re in a good position to win. I feel confident going into the playoffs where, other years, it’s sort of been if we win, we win. This year, there’s a little bit more expectation.”

Upper Valley will rely heavily on an offense that’s deeper than it’s been all season.

All-Stars Gregoire, Matt Sanders, Luke Reynolds and Anthony Godino remain in prominent roles. Sanders has been Upper Valley’s workhorse, with 162 at-bats in 43 games played, and he is second on the team in hits (46) and stolen bases (10). Godino has a team-high 48 hits, 32 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Reynolds is third on the team with a .306 average in 32 games, and Gregoire, still working his way back to 100 percent health, is the team’s power with nine home runs.

“It’s better; I’m probably running at about 75 percent,” Gregoire said. “I’m excited. I think we have a good shot. We’ve played well with whoever it is, Valley or Keene. I think Valley would be a little bit more of a challenge for us just because of how good the back end of their bullpen is.”

Additions Connor Rowland (Palm Beach Atlantic), who is batting .429 in his first five games, and Matt Rothenberg, the Harvard product who was named the South Florida Collegiate League’s best hitter before joining the Nighthawks, have found their roles in the NECBL’s most dangerous offense.

First pitch is at 6:30 p.m. tonight. Game two is scheduled for Saturday night at Holyoke, Mass., and game three, if necessary, is set for Sunday at Maxfield.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

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