GORHAM, Maine – Top-seeded University of Southern Maine bounced back from two-run deficits twice, scoring the go-ahead runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to record a 5-3 win over No. 4 Eastern Connecticut State University in an elimination game of the double-elimination 2017 Little East Conference Baseball Tournament Friday afternoon at the USM Baseball Stadium on the campus of the University of Southern Maine.
With its third loss this season to Southern Maine (30-10), defending champion Eastern (21-16) is eliminated in three games while the Huskies advance to the final of the losers' bracket Saturday morning. Wednesday, Eastern had lost its opener to third-seeded Massachusetts Dartmouth, 9-2, and Southern Maine was upset by sixth-seeded Rhode Island College, 8-4
Now 12-3 this year at home, Southern Maine wiped out deficits of 2-0 and 3-1, tying the game in the fifth on a two-out, two-run single by Matt Bender – on a ball which Eastern senior centerfielder Alex Zachary (Enfield) nearly made a miraculous diving catch – and going ahead for good in the sixth on consecutive RBI singles by No. 9 hitter Andrew Hillier and leadoff batter Zach Quintal.
Starting for the first time in 42 career appearances, Eastern sophomore lefty Nick Rascati (Wallingford) carried a 3-1 lead into the fifth, allowing only four hits through the first four innings. In the fifth, he allowed a leadoff double to Hillier. He then walked Quintal and both runners moved up on a sacrifice bunt. Rascati fanned No. 3 hitter Dylan Hapworth for the second out before Bender lifted a fly ball to medium right-center. Zachary raced to his left and dove to grab the ball on the top of the grass, but the ball fell out of his glove when he hit the ground. Initially ruled a catch, the decision was reversed following a length discussion between the game's three umpires.
Eastern scored twice in the top of the fourth off USM freshman righty Gage Feeney on the first of four hits by junior second baseman Collin Russell (Sandwich, MA) – a two-out, two-run single – and after the hosts got one back, Eastern made it 3-1 in the fifth on Zachary's leadoff home run to left. The Warriors failed to pad their lead further in the inning, however. After junior first baseman D.J. Scavone (Auburn, MA) and Russell followed with singles, senior lefty Tom Fortier ended the threat on a soft line drive to short and a hard line drive to center off the bat of junior catcher Merlyn Herrera (La Yaquiza, DR).
The Warriors had runners on base in all but one inning against four USM pitchers, but stranded 12. With Eastern trailing 5-3, senior shortstop Christian Budzik (Cromwell) and freshman leftfielder John Mesagno (Tappan, NY) poked two-out singles in the eighth, but sophomore righty Jake Dexter got a routine ground ball to short to get out of the inning. Zachary led off the ninth with his 14th double of the season – an opposite-field blast that landed halfway up the fence – and third hit of the game, but Dexter easily extinguished the threat, needing only seven pitches to induce three ground balls and collect his 11th save of the year.
After recording a win and save in USM's regular-season sweep of Eastern, sophomore lefty Matt Correale gained his second win over the Warriors with 2 2/3 innings of one-hit relief. Zachary reached four times with a double, home run, single and hit-by-pitch and finished his Eastern career by becoming the 29th player in program history to hit .400 in a season (.404).
Zachary ended his career having reached safely in his final 23 games. Sophomore DH Alex Parkos (Meriden) extended his streak to 20 with a first-inning walk and Mesagno ended the season having reached safely in his final 13.
As a team, Eastern concluded the season with a 1-14 record when trailing after seven innings.
In three tournament games, Russell batted .500 (5-for-10), Zachary .455 (5-for-11) and Budzik and Mesagno .300 (3-for-10). Mesagno scored four runs and Zachary (3) and Russell (2) were the team's RBI leaders.