By Dan Harrison
---- — SALEM — The Salem State baseball team had high aspirations after an early season trip to Florida that saw the Vikings compete well against some of the top teams in Division 3 college baseball.
They returned home to Salem at just 3-7, but the Vikings were extremely confident that their best baseball lay ahead.
They were right.
That confidence was particularly evident in Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference play, where the Vikings went 12-2 and captured their first regular season MASCAC title since 2006. Salem State (22-13 overall) was rewarded for its conference dominance with the opportunity to host this year’s MASCAC tournament at Salem for the first time in seven years.
Salem State will host Worcester State today at 3 p.m. The double-elimination tourney continues tomorrow and concludes with Sunday’s MASCAC championship game Sunday at noon.
“That was our first goal this year and we still have a ways to go, but it was nice to win this year’s regular season title,” said first-year head coach Mike Ward, who is pleased to have home field advantage. “I think you’ve got to love the fact that we earned that. It certainly can give you an edge when you don’t travel and you get that bye.”
Pitching and defense go hand-in-hand on the diamond, and while the Vikings have excelled in both it’s been their fielding that has really paved the way for success. SSU is a sparkling 19-6 since returning from Florida.
Centerfielder Ethan Trowt and fellow outfielder (and MASCAC Player of the Year) Steve Buitkus have .986 and .987 fielding percentages, respectively. Second baseman Kevin Salines (.992) and catchers Mike Lamothe (.989) and MASCAC First Teamer Brett Cahill (.964) have also been outstanding.
Fielding has been crucial all season, probably no more than when Salem State defeated North Shore Cup rival Endicott College, 1-0, in 10 innings. The Vikings didn’t commit an error the entire game and wound up scoring the game-winning run on an infield mishap. A recent sweep of conference rival Bridgewater State also saw Salem State play errorless ball in both contests.
“I think if anything, it gives the pitching staff lot of confidence because they know they can challenge hitters. Good teams are strong up the middle and we’ve gotten strong catching, and our shortstop play has been outstanding,” said Ward. “Trowt is the best center fielder I’ve seen as far as getting a jump on ball and the range that he has.”
Ryan Hyjek, recently named team MVP, has been Salem State’s best arm on the mound this season. He’s 4-0 record in five starts with 38 strikeouts, seven walks and an ERA of 1.36. But he was injured for a portion of the spring and the Vikings needed other pitchers to step up, especially the last few weeks.
So step up they did. Ryan Sharp has been phenomenal with a perfect 5-0 record in five starts (covering 9 appearances) with an earned run average of 2.25. Cato Lacroix and Ed Deren have combined for 13 starts while Peabody native Andrew Guido, the team’s closer, has a team-high 15 appearances with a 3-0 record and three saves.
“A lot of guys on the staff have stepped up. Sharp’s a senior and has had a breakthrough year. Ed Duran struggled early, but in the second half he’s pitched real well,” said Ward, recently honored as the MASCAC’s Coach of the Year. “Andrew Guido has done a great job closing out games; he’s been in a lot of tough spots and pitched really well for us. It’s good to have a veteran at the back of bullpen.”
Salem State currently has four hitters with averages above .300 including Salines (.367), MASCAC Rookie of the Year Richard Fecteau (.359), Matt Burgess (.319), and Gloucester’s Cahill (.311) while Buitkus is at .299 and Newburyport native Kyle McElroy is hitting .287. But it’s been the aggressive baserunning that has really elevated the SSU offense, which has scored 199 runs and stolen 57 bags on 72 attempts. Buitkus (13-of-14 successful thefts), McElroy (8-of-11), Fecteau (8-of-10) and Burgess (8-of-9) have all been consistent threats on the basepaths.
“Starting about three years ago, we’ve focused on baserunning and attacking other teams,” said Ward, who had previously been an assistant for longtime coach Ken Perrone’s staff. “It’s something we practice every day, and it’s a big part of our strategy. We’re fortunate to have the athletes who can take advantage of that.”