Summer League Playoffs Underway

As we welcome in August, we also begin to wave farewell to summer baseball.

The NECBL playoffs began on Wednesday, featuring the top four teams from the Eastern and Western divisions. Each group will fight amongst itself with a pair of three-game series’ to decide who will emerge for the interdivisional championship series set for next week.

The NECBL regular season was one of the closest races in years as four teams in the Western Division—the Keene Swamp Bats, Holyoke Blue Sox, Vermont Mountaineers, and Danbury Westerners—finished within three games of the top seed. Keene and Holyoke tied for first place, each holding 28-14 records, but Keene earned home-field advantage throughout the Western playoffs thanks to a 4-2 head-to-head record.

Both the Swamp Bats and Blue Sox fired on all cylinders in their 2011 postseason debuts. Keene jumped on Danbury, 7-3, shooting five across in the third inning, led by a three-run homer from rising senior third baseman Colby May of Georgia, his eighth of the summer. Jeff Thompson, a towering 6-foot-6 rising sophomore righthander from Louisville who only recently began focusing on baseball as a three-sport high school standout and dominated NECBL competition with 53 strikeouts in 38 innings pitched this summer, worked six two-hit innings, securing Game One for the Bats.

Holyoke staved off a comeback from Vermont to pull ahead in their series as well, 4-3. The Blue Sox also called on a 6-foot-6 righthander, theirs being DJ Brown—a rising junior from James Madison—to hold the Mountaineer bats steady. Brown, who burst on the national scene with 7 1/3 innings in relief against Florida International in the NCAA tournament this spring, threw seven innings on Wednesday, yielding just one run. Eric Smith, a rising junior from Stanford, manned shortstop and added two RBIs for Holyoke.

Across the way in the Eastern Division, the Laconia Muskrats, who narrowly qualified for the postseason at 18-24, knocked off top-seed Newport, 4-3. The Muskrats scored three in the top of the eighth and were paced by rising junior Chris Costantino who went 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Costantino was a 43rd-round selection by the Cardinals this year out of Walters State (Tenn.) CC and has had a breakout summer campaign both with the bat and on the mound. As a hitter, Costantino hit .296 with four home runs during NECBL regular season play and was drafted as a third baseman out of Bishop Hendricken (R.I.) High in the 49th round by the Red Sox in 2009.

This time around, he was drafted as a pitcher and on July 17, he threw just the fifth no-hitter in league history. Laconia got a solid outing starter Justin Wiley, a southpaw from Iona, followed by four shutout innings from four different arms. Harry Glynne, a member of Division-II Central Connecticut State’s College World Series team, got the win while William Prince, a rising sophomore from UNC Wilmington, got the save, whiffing the only batter he faced.

In the final game of the opening day, the North Shore Navigators shutout Sanford, 8-0. Crayton Bare, an undersized righthander from Baylor, worked seven innings, striking out four, and Matt McGovern (Boston College), Clinton Harwich (Point Loma Nazarene) and Dario Pizzano (Columbia) had standout days at the plate. Pizzano, a rising junior and two-time first team all-Ivy League outfielder, hit .365 with four long balls, 12 doubles and more walks than strikeouts in 38 games for the Navigators.

The Valley League is also in the midst of the postseason. On Wednesday, the Rockbridge Rapids (25-23) and Covington Lumberjacks (25-24) both pulled off upsets, sweeping the Harrisonburg Turks (34-14) and Winchester Royals (31-18), respectively, to advance into the championship round. The Rapids breezed through Waynesboro in the first round and then beat the Turks 5-2 in game one and 5-3 in game two of the semifinals.

Down a run in the sixth in the second contest, Rockbridge scored three times off run-scoring base hits from centerfielder Tyler Molinaro, leftfielder Andrew Montague, and catcher Mike Perez, a rising senior at Millersville (Penn.). Molinaro, a rising junior from Pitt (N.C.) CC who signed to play with UNC-Wilmington next spring and was drafted in the 15th round by the Yankees this year, had two hits in the game. Montague, another soon-to-be junior from the Virginia Military Institute who hasn’t pitched an inning in his college career, threw four spotless innings in relief, striking out five and surrendering just two hits to earn his first win of the summer.

Covington slammed its way past Winchester in their first game, 12-4, but used a phenomenal pitching performance from Troy Barton (Eastern Illinois) to squeak by the Royals, 3-1, in game two. Barton, yet another hulking 6-foot-6 righthander, struck out eight and allowed three hits over eight innings, his longest outing of the summer.

Just down the road, the Cal Ripken League wrapped up its summer season on July 29. For the third straight year, the Bethesda Big Train defeated the Baltimore Redbirds for the league crown. Appropriately named, Bethesda steamrolled its opponents in the CRL, going 33-9 and finished in first-place by eight games.

The Big Train won the final game, 4-2, and were led by League Championship Series MVP Michael Aldrete (San Jose State) who broke a seventh-inning tie with a two-run blast. Aldrete was 5-for-9 in the playoffs and also pitched an inning to earn a save.

Southpaw Kelly Secrest (UNC-Wilmington) struck out seven through five innings to receive the win. He finished the season with a 0.98 ERA. Teammate Adam Barry, a rising senior from Cal State Northridge, won the batting and RBI titles hitting .414 with 43 knocks. Matt Bowman (Princeton) tied for the league lead in wins with five and won the ERA crown at 0.82.

The MINK, Alaska, Jayhawk, and California Collegiate Leagues have also been completed, and the winners of the four leagues are now competing in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas. The St. Joseph Mustangs, winners of the MINK League, dropped a tough one to the Valley Center Diamond Dawgs of the Walter Johnson Baseball League 4-3 in 10 innings on Wednesday to fall into the loser’s bracket. The Mustangs got a terrific effort out of starting pitcher Adam Maddox (Central Missouri) who worked seven innings allowing just one run.

In the MINK League’s title game, Maddox threw a no-hitter. Koby Temple (Tabor College) scored the tying run in the ninth and singled in the winning run in the tenth for Valley Center.

The Santa Barbara Foresters, co-champs of the California League, also went into extra innings on Wednesday, defeating the Hutchinson Monarchs, another Walter Johnson foe, 7-6 in 10 innings. Shane Kroker (Cal State Chico) hit a ground rule double to start the tenth inning before back-to-back bunts from Brett Vertigan (UC Santa Barbara) and Jeff McNeil (Long Beach State) helped drive in the go-ahead run for the Foresters. Rice rising sophomore Austin Kubitza, a top 2013 draft prospect, threw eight innings.

The Kenai Peninsula Oilers, the Alaska League winners, opened up against the Northwest Honkers of the Pacific International League and run-ruled the Honkers 14-1 in a five inning affair. The Oilers were led by multi-hit efforts from leadoff hitter and shortstop Mike Miller, a rising senior from Cal Poly who led the ABL in hitting this summer, in addition to St. Mary's third baseman Patrick Wisdom, and Tennessee Wesleyan's Stephen Branca, a pick up from the Mat-Su Miners for the World Series.

Wisdom had a home run while Branca, a 34th-round draft pick by the Twins out of high school in 2007, went 3-for-4 with four RBIs. Long Beach State's Jon Maciel got the win with seven strikeouts in five quick innings. The Jayhawk League champion Haysville Heat will play their second round matchup against the Arvada Colts of the Rocky Mountain Baseball League  after downing the Clearwater Cowboys, 8-6, in their first go-around.