NORTH READING — When it mattered most, the Northeast Wilmington baseball team hit its stride, winning two of three down the stretch. The momentum derived from that late season success, which offset five straight defeats, carried into the playoffs.
In a come-from-behind effort, backed by impressive pitching, Wilmington eliminated nemesis North Reading in last Tuesday’s opening round. Led by starter Austin Harper, who threw three strong innings, complemented by middle reliever Lars Ostebo, who one-hit the Hornets after his offense rallied back from a deficit, and polished off by Ayden Balter in a closing role, Wilmington prevailed, 7- 5.
“That was the plan going in,” said Wilmington Coach Rick Hill, when asked about the pitching sequence. “Actually, Lars gave us an inning more than we thought we would get, saving us from using someone else later on.”
Wilmington has since moved on to play Westford in a best-of-three series and the teams split the first two games with the deciding game held this past Tuesday night with results not known as of press time. The Town Crier will have a complete wrap up of the summer season in next week’s edition.
This summer baseball season was, at times, chaotic. In recent years, the Northeast League, which has been in existence since 1969, was comprised of as many as 12 teams. But this year, the New England AAU and others siphoned off many of the available players leaving a number of area communities short-handed, unable to field a team. Even some of the clubs that tried were often handcuffed. Billerica, for instance, played several games with the minimum nine and was forced to forfeit a mid-season meeting with Wilmington due to lack of players.
There were positives, however. In a league featuring just five teams with several meetings in a short span, the familiarity gave rise to interesting rivalries. Pitchers grew to know the hitters and conversely, hitters knew what to expect when they came up to bat.
Wilmington faced North Reading three times between June 22nd and July 13th, losing all three by scores of 7-5, 10-0, and 12-2. Heading into the playoff game, the 9-3 Hornets were the clear favorite. But 4-8 Wilmington was coming off a huge 11-10 triumph over eventual top-seed Westford in the regular season finale and in the first inning against North Reading, assumed a 2-0 lead.
“Going in, we had anticipated getting on them early and we succeeded,” said Hill. “That was a credit to our guys.”
Wilmington capitalized on a back-to-back error, scoring Jake Roque on a booted grounder and later, Balter on a dropped fly ball in the outfield. North Reading would not be denied, recapturing the lead in the bottom of the first with three runs. Wilmington almost escaped unscathed thanks to a premier effort by Brett Gallucci in right field. He stretched to snag a liner and then caught a fly ball but the Hornets rendered two-out damage to move ahead, 3-2.
Wilmington reeled them back, tying the game at 3 in the second frame when pinch-runner Ostebo scored on a Nolan Joyce sac fly.
In the third, North Reading converted a lead-off double into a go-ahead run and clung to the lead into the sixth when Wilmington put up a crooked number. Patrick Stokes led off with a base hit and was soon joined by Noah Spencer. North Reading starter Craig Rubino was clearly faltering but Coach Marco Vittozzi chose to let him continue. Mike Dynan loaded the bases with the third straight hit and soon, a pair of runners — Stokes and Spencer — were home on Ostebo’s double to deep left. Dynan scored on Eric Spinney’s sac fly and Gallucci crossed on a Connor Lovell two-out base hit to make it 7-4.
“Rubino was throwing the ball hard for North Reading and throwing a lot of strikes,” said Hill. “I guess the difference between tonight’s game and previous games, we were able to hit the ball. And the errors were uncharacteristic for a North Reading team.”
The Hornets put runners aboard in the seventh and actually had moved the tying run into scoring position, but Balter struck out a pair to hold on to the win.
“This team has come together over the last four or five games,” said Hill. “This is summer baseball and guys can’t make it to every game but you saw tonight, we had fourteen players here. We haven’t had that many guys in a long time. When everybody shows up to play, we’re going to give our opponent a good game.”