Nighthawks Notebook: Pitching has been key to early-season success

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Adarius Myers (6) slides back to first base as Keene Swamp Bats’ Garrett Rice (18) waits to catch the ball and attempt to tag him out during a game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Adarius Myers (6) slides back to first base as Keene Swamp Bats’ Garrett Rice (18) waits to catch the ball and attempt to tag him out during a game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ pitching coach Chad Sturgeon talks to Teddy Tolliver (36) on the mound during a game against the Keene Swamp Bats at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ pitching coach Chad Sturgeon talks to Teddy Tolliver (36) on the mound during a game against the Keene Swamp Bats at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Stephen Harrington (34) slides back to first base as Keene Swamp Bats’ Garrett Rice (18) waits to catch the ball and attempt to tag him out during a game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Stephen Harrington (34) slides back to first base as Keene Swamp Bats’ Garrett Rice (18) waits to catch the ball and attempt to tag him out during a game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america — Alex Driehaus

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Jake Bullard (23) and Manager Mat Pause adjust their helmets on third base during a game against the Keene Swamp Bats at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Upper Valley Nighthawks’ Jake Bullard (23) and Manager Mat Pause adjust their helmets on third base during a game against the Keene Swamp Bats at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The Nighthawks won, 5-3. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Name hereAlex Driehaus

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-23-2023 8:07 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Even before all of the Upper Valley Nighthawks’ pitchers had arrived, the hurlers were carrying the team to a strong start this summer.

Now that the staff is nearly complete, opposing New England Collegiate Baseball League lineups could be in for some difficult evenings at the Maxfield Sports Complex.

Such was the fate of the Keene Swamp Bats on Wednesday. Nighthawks pitching did not allow a hit over the final seven innings in a 5-3 victory. Upper Valley improved to 7-2, remaining percentage points ahead of rival Vermont atop the NECBL North standings.

“We had a plan, we stuck to the plan, and they all performed,” pitching coach Chad Sturgeon said. “Can’t ask for much more than that.”

Starter Teddy Tolliver (Lehigh) was shaky early on, allowing two runs on three hits in his first two innings of work, but he settled down from there, striking out back-to-back hitters to end his outing after issuing two free passes to begin the fourth. Christian Howe, fresh off a run to the NCAA Super Regionals with Kentucky, made his season debut in relief and retired the only batter he faced on a pop-up to shortstop to escape the jam.

Next out of the chute was Brady Fuller from Troy, also making his first appearance of the season. Fuller retired all six batters he faced, striking out four of them, and earned the win as the Nighthawks took the lead for good in the bottom of the fifth.

“I was trying to throw everything around the middle. Just trying to get back to the basics,” Fuller said. “We’re here to win, but we’re here to get better at the same time, so throwing everything for a strike, that was the game plan.”

Nate Crider, from Louisiana Tech, worked the seventh for his first outing of the summer and was a bit wild, plunking his first batter and uncorking a wild pitch to advance him to second. The runner moved to third on a passed ball and scored on an infield grounder, but Crider nonetheless got through the inning without giving up a hit.

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Randall Alejo (College of Saint Rose) took it from there. The third-year Nighthawk worked mostly as a starter last summer but is now shining as a late-inning reliever, and he closed things out with two perfect innings. He now has two wins and a save in his three appearances covering eight scoreless innings, in which he has allowed just one hit and one walk and struck out nine.

“He said he wanted to be in the bullpen, and I told him we’ll see how things go,” Sturgeon said. “The way he’s performed, he’s going to be my end-of-game guy for the rest of the season.”

Rain, rain, go away

Wednesday was just the Nighthawks’ fourth game in the last nine days — including a doubleheader sweep Sunday at North Adams — thanks to four rainouts in a five-day span followed by scheduled off days Monday and Tuesday.

Upper Valley will play four makeup doubleheaders over the next month and will lose two home games as a result of the postponements. The Nighthawks’ June 13 home date with Bristol will now be played as the front end of a twinbill next Thursday in Connecticut, and Saturday’s game against Martha’s Vineyard will be moved to the Shark Tank before the originally scheduled game on July 21.

No other team in the NECBL had played fewer than 11 games through Wednesday, and some have played as many as 13.

The Nighthawks played their 10th contest of the season Thursday in Keene, and it was to be their fourth meeting against the Swamp Bats.

“If some guys are hitting the ball well and they have a couple days off, it might break their rhythm a little bit,” manager Mat Pause said. “As we get into the season and we start playing a lot of games, off days are good. But I don’t think I’ve ever been part (of a team) where we’ve had this many off days this early.”

Close game magic

Five of the Nighthawks’ seven victories have come by one or two runs, including three in extra innings. Even Upper Valley’s 6-3 victory in the first game of Sunday’s seven-inning doubleheader against the SteepleCats in Massachusetts was dramatic — the Nighthawks coughed up a 3-0 lead, then plated three runs in the bottom of the sixth, retaking the edge on a throwing error.

Later that day, Upper Valley again let a 3-0 lead slip away but scored the eventual winning run in the top of the ninth on an RBI single by Ryan Cesarini (St. Joseph’s). Cesarini followed that up with a three-hit performance Wednesday, driving in two runs with a single in the first and scoring a key insurance run in the seventh.

The Nighthawks’ nine hits in Wednesday’s game represented their second-highest total of the season, behind a 13-hit outburst in an 11-inning win at Sanford on June 9.

“They’re hitting balls they can handle,” Pause said. “We’ve made a little adjustment trying to just hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s really good to see.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.