By Dan Harrison
---- — SALEM — The Salem State baseball team knew its defense had to stand strong behind freshman pitcher Sean Buckland in yesterday’s Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference title game against Westfield State.
The Viking fielders did their jobs, committing no errors and Buckland tossed a gem as Salem State captured the MASCAC championship with a 5-0 triumph over the Owls.
Manager Mike Ward’s team captured the regular season MASCAC title earlier in the week and outscored their opponents, 19-4, in three games to win the conference tournament. Now, the Vikings (25-13) earned themselves a berth in the NCAA Division 3 tournament, which will be announced next Sunday. The regional will be played at Whitehouse Field in Harwich from May 15-19.
“It feels great. It’s a great group; they worked hard all season and the times we’ve fallen behind this year, they’ve just continued to grind,” said Ward, whose team claimed their first MASCAC tournament title in seven years.
“Buck has improved as the year’s gone on; he’s learned how to pitch at the collegiate level. We have a lot of faith in him and his stuff. I thought he was relaxed and confident.”
Outfielder Steve Buitkus, a senior captain from Reading who was 2-for-4 with a run and two stolen bases yesterday, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Buckland’s confidence must be sky-high right now after pitching his second straight shutout; the left-hander from Lynn gave up just two hits in his previous outing, a win over Tufts just before the end of the regular season.
Yesterday, he was focused on performing for his teammates and the bond they all share.
“I didn’t want to let my senior captains — or any of the seniors — down. I love these guys. I feel like they’re my family,” said Buckland, who allowed just three hits and one walk in nine innings of work against Westfield State. “I got into a nice grove and wasn’t looking at the scoreboard. I just kept pitching until it was over.”
The former St. Mary’s of Lynn star had his curve going early and located his fastball nicely throughout the contest. Nothing was easy for the Westfield State hitters, who watched Buckland get up early in counts as he pounded the strike zone. The southpaw also helped his own cause with a nice barehanded play on a chopper down the first base line in the third inning.
“He just consistently threw strikes. Everything was around the plate,” said Owls (19-21) head coach Ray Arra. “Lefties have given us problems all year. (Buckland) was great.”
It helped that Salem State’s fielders made every routine play — and a few extraordinary ones — to keep the Owls from crossing the plate. Kevin Salines had a pair of fine grabs on line drives at second base; shortstop Ryan Beliveau of Lynn smothered anything up the middle; and first baseman Matt Burgess ended the fourth inning with runners on the corners when he made a great catch on a foul ball down the right field line.
In addition, Beverly’s Mike Lamothe squeezed a foul-tip strike three for the second out in the ninth, then ended the game with a diving catch behind home plate.
“I think the formula for us has been good defense, good at-bats and pressure on the basepaths,” noted Ward. “Our pitchers can challenge hitters because they trust their defense.”
The Vikings’ enthusiasm was obvious from the opening pitch. There was a lot of chatter coming out of the home team’s dugout in support of both Buckland and the guys at the dish. That enthusiasm carried out onto the diamond as the Vikings grabbed a run in the first inning to take an early lead.
As it has done all season, Salem State used small ball and timely hitting to get its offense going. After Salines (3-for-3, 2 runs scored) ripped an opposite field single to left field, he stole second base with one out and came home on Gloucester native Brett Cahill’s two-out single. Two innings later Buitkus singled, stole second and came home on a Salines RBI single to make it 2-0.
“We pay a lot of attention to it in practice: baserunning and bunting,” explained Ward. “We have good athletes, so I want to put them in motion.”
Burgess had an RBI ground-rule double in the fifth to make it 3-0. Then in the seventh, Salem State was extremely patient at the plate and frustrated Owls’ relief pitcher Curt Everett, who hit a pair of batters and walked Kyle McElroy with the bases loaded to make it 4-0. Everett followed that up by throwing a wild pitch after Lamothe had fouled off a pair of would-be third strikes, which allowed Cahill to cross score the game’s final run.