By Nick Curcuru
---- — ESSEX — Heading into the fifth inning of yesterday afternoon’s Intertown Twilight Baseball League semifinal tilt between the first place Manchester Essex Mariners and fourth seeded Ipswich Chiefs, it appeared that Ipswich was well on its way to a Game 1 victory.
The Chiefs held a six-run lead over the Mariners while receiving offensive production up and down the lineup and solid pitching from starter Greg Doucette.
But it all unraveled from there.
Over its final two offensive innings Manchester Essex showed off its offensive mettle by exploding for 20 runs, going from being blown out to blowing out the Chiefs to the tune of a 22-9 victory at Memorial Field.
With the semifinal win, the defending league champion Mariners are now just one win away from their sixth straight trip to the ITL finals. Manchester Essex has won four of the last five league titles and defeated the Chiefs for the ITL crown just last season.
“They just didn’t quit tonight,” Mariners manager Bryan Lafata said of his club, which trailed 8-2 at one point. “We were pressing a little bit early after falling behind but we stayed focused and started squaring up on the ball, which led to a lot of runs.”
The Mariners started the rally in the bottom of the fifth inning, plating five runs to cut the Chiefs’ lead to 8-7. Nate Bertolino singled in Rory Gentile, who led off the inning by reaching on an error. Two batters later, Mike Cain singled in Bertolino and was followed by Max Nesbit, who singled in Brett Cahill (who had walked) to cut the lead to 8-5.
Cain came in to score from third on an errant pickoff throw to first base and Adrian Frattini doubled in Nesbit to cap the scoring in the inning, bringing the Mariners to within one run while chasing Doucette in the process.
In the top of the sixth, the Chiefs answered back with what appeared to be an insurance run, thanks to a Matt Small solo home run. But the Chiefs’ bullpen could not hold the lead.
In the decisive sixth inning, Manchester Essex sent 15 runs to the plate as the Ipswich bullpen came unglued. The Mariners only had six hits, but two of them were grand slams off the bats of Bertolino and Frattini. On top of that, four Ipswich pitchers combined to walk four, hit three batters, and committed a balk that allowed a run to score while its defense committed three errors in the frame.
Manchester’s Ian Buckley drove in what turned out to be the winning runs, breaking a 9-9 tie with a two-run double that scored Bertolino and Cahill (who each walked).
Mariners starter Ryan Marques bounced back from a tough first inning to pick up the win. It was a tough night for both starting pitchers as both the Mariners and Chiefs were putting good swings on the ball throughout the contest.
According to Lafata, the familiarity between the two teams may have been what led to such an offensive outburst.
“It was tough for both pitchers tonight because these two teams are so familiar with each other. These two guys faced off just last week so both teams know what’s coming,” said Lafata.
The Chiefs started the game off on the right foot, plating five runs before the Mariners even came to bat. Andy Knox delivered an RBI double to make it 1-0 and Tom Radzim followed with a two-run shot just three batters into the game. Chris Zaremba would make it 5-0 later in the inning with a two-RBI double of his own.
Doucette helped out his own cause in the fourth with a two-run blast, making it 8-2 Ipswich. But it was all downhill for the Chiefs from there.
Frattini powered the Mariners offense Sunday with three hits and seven RBIs, Buckley had two hits and three RBI and Bertolino had three hits and five RBI. Radzim and Zaremba led the offense for Ipswich with three and two RBI, respectively.
The teams have no time to dwell on last night’s game since Game 2 is tonight in Ipswich (5:30 p.m.). The Chiefs must win to stay alive, while the Mariners will be sending Adam Philpott to the hill with a chance to clinch a spot in the finals.