MERRIMACK – The matchup between Merrimack Post 98 and Concord Post 21 looked like a good one on the schedule.
Why not? The towns’ high school baseball teams had just played in the Division I championship game 11 days before, with Concord winning in extra innings.
And for six innings on Wednesday, the American Legion version of the game looked just as good. It even had the same score, as Concord rallied for four runs in the top of the sixth and Merrimack scored in the bottom of the inning to make it a 5-4 game in favor of Post 21.
But then Merrimack hit the wall. Concord outscored Post 98 10-0 over the final three innings and dropped Merrimack 15-4. The loss dropped Post 98 to 0-3 in District A-2 and Merrimack has been outscored 41-13 in those three games.
Merrimack got a good start from Patrick Korianski, as he went 5 2/3 innings, allowing five runs – three earned – on nine hits and a walk with three strikeouts.
But Korianki ran out of gas in the sixth and Post 98 struggled from there. Four Merrimack relievers combined to allow 10 runs on eight hits and seven walks in the final 3 1/3 innings.
“Patrick threw great for us,” Merrimack coach Cliff Hicks said. “He was keeping hitters off balance. He was throwing changeups in fastballs counts, so guys were out in front and rolling over ground balls.
“His pitch count was getting up there in the sixth and think that was a big factor. He ran out of steam. Once we brought in some relief, those guys just had a tough time finding the strike zone. That’s what it boiled down to. We couldn’t get ahead of guys and that put us in a bad spot, and the bats kind of went quiet.”
If Hicks was frustrated after the loss, he didn’t show it. Going into the season, the coach knew what his team might be facing this season.
Merrimack won the New Hampshire Junior Legion title a year ago, and rather than keep the group at that level again, Post 98 returned to senior ball for the first time since going 0-20 in 2008. Instead of having a dominant junior team, Hicks has a very young senior team, which features just three players who are too old to play at the younger level.
“I can go out on a limb and say we’re the youngest team by a year if you average everybody out,” he said. “We have a couple of guys who are seniors and everyone else could play Junior Legion. They’re making that big jump. Some of them were seeing middle school ball last year and now they’re seeing guys who are playing college baseball. But we wouldn’t throw them out there if they weren’t ready.”
Hicks has two players who are just 14, but the age gap is something theses players had to deal with when they started the junior legion team two years ago.
“They’re no stranger to older kids, by no means,” he said. “That was the plan, be young and then the following couple of years, we’d be competitive. This year, we’re looking to have that bunch get their feet wet.
“We could put a team out there that could compete very well in Junior Legion, but we wanted to make that jump so a lot of these kids could get that exposure for college baseball and get a higher competitive ball. A lot of these guys will be around for at least two or three more years.”
The biggest problem so far has been pitching. Hicks has a handful of guys who played varsity for Merrimack, but only one – Matt Wojciak – spent significant time on the mound during the Tomahawks’ season.
The extra two innings in senior games has also made it challenging for the coaches.
“Last year, we were thinking we’d have our starter throw five innings, and have a setup man and a closer go the sixth and seventh,” Hicks said. “Now it’s try to get as much out of the starter and hope he gets into the seventh inning where we can have that relief.
“We’re trying to find that guy who is going to be that middle relief for us, who lets it all out for that one inning. It’s tough to find when guys haven’t even pitched that much for the high school season.”
Merrimack held an early lead on Wednesday, as Corey Hutchinson led off the bottom of the first with a single, stole second and third, and scored on a groundout by Taylor Black. Concord tied the game in its half of the second, but Post 98 went ahead in the third.
Black started the inning with a single and went to second on a groundout by Brendan Holt. Mickey Gasper followed by crushing a ball to right field that would have been a home run, if there was a fence at Merrimack High School. Instead, it went for a very long RBI triple, and Gasper scored on a sacrifice fly by Eric Nadeau to make it 3-1.
That lead stood until the sixth, and Hicks believes that if Merrimack can stretch its play from the first two-thirds of Wednesday’s game, it will come out on top of some contests this season.
“We were right in there,” he said. “A lot of the games we’re going to be in, but it’s going to be a matter of us being able to execute every game. If we let up one bit, we’ll be in a world of trouble, like you saw (Wednesday).”