Friday, August 22, 2008

Mariners Claim ITL Championship

Mariners Sweep Generals to Claim ITL Championship
By Jason Brisbois


Expect the unexpected.

If anything, that had to be the motto of the Intertown Twilight Baseball League for 2008. There was no way to predict, from one game to the next, who would end up on top. Six of the seven teams in the league were in playoff contention up until the final week of regular season play, and even then it was difficult to figure out who was going to be in, be out and who was going to claim the top seed.

And with the 2008 ITL semifinals finishing up in just as unpredictable a manner – with number four seed Hamilton sweeping Ipswich to reach the title game and Manchester/Essex defeating the 2007 champion Rockport Townies to advance – it seemed predestined that the championship series would go a full five games, with each game being a nail-biter.

This, too, ended quite unexpectedly.

The Manchester/Essex Mariners swept the Hamilton Generals in the ITL finals, capping off the series with a 2-0 victory last Wednesday. While all three games in the series seemed to be one dogfight after another (which was expected), no one could have guessed Manchester would dispatch of the tough-as-nails Generals so quickly.

“Before the series, every visiting team had won a game, so I didn’t expect someone to go in and sweep either way,” said Manchester/Essex coach Bryan Lafata. “Both teams have such good pitching, you wouldn’t expect a sweep. It’s definitely a great statement reflecting the whole season. By far, in my 17 years of playing, I’ve never seen such balance from top to bottom.”

In the end, it was the balance the Mariners had on their roster that proved to be the difference. The M’s boasted a deep pitching staff, could hit in the clutch and could play defense better than almost anyone.

“Our defense, I’ve been saying it since week one, really amazed,” said Lafata. “I’ve known most of these guys for years, and I’ve coached most of them. Our pitching allowed our defense to make plays, and we were deep at all positions.”

The outfield of Rick Bettencourt, Ian Buckley, Rory Gentile and Joe Orlando was a solid one, with utility players Ty Haskell and Bobby Whynott providing support in a pinch. An infield that featured Nate Bertolino, Mike Cain, Whit Graham, Mike MacFarland and Dylan Maki, along with a deep battery made up of catchers Bryan Goodhue, Kyle Hildebrand and Lafata, was also a big boost to the team throughout the playoffs.

“Dylan Maki was unbelievable at third for the whole playoffs,” said Lafata, referring to Maki, who came on board later in the season. “His number one thing was defense, and he showed up and played like he was playing with us the whole time. We also had as deep a catching staff as our pitching staff.”

It was the pitching staff of Jack Brancaleone, Mike Gibbon, Ryan Marques and Steve Stout that may have been the biggest difference-maker. Few teams in the ITL had as deep a staff as the Mariners.

“When they were asked to get the job done, they did the job,” Lafata said of his pitching staff. “These guys pitched phenomenal as a group altogether. Once in a while, they didn’t have their best stuff, but then someone else comes in to pick them up.”

Of note was the pitching of Brancaleone, who started sparingly at times during the regular season, but looked like a staff ace when called upon to pitch the team to victory in the clinching games against Rockport and Hamilton.

“Jack was unbelievable in those game threes,” said Lafata. “It’s tough with this league, some weeks you have two games a week, so sometimes its two weeks before you can pitch again.”

While the team had plenty of reason to celebrate after clinching game three against Hamilton last week, it did not go unnoticed that a key member of the Mariners was not able to be on hand for the festivities. Jared Knowlton, who served as the third-base coach and pitcher for the Mariners and other ITL teams for 14 years, passed away unexpectedly earlier this summer. That the Mariners reached the pinnacle of their sport during a season that was dedicated to his memory made the 2008 campaign even more special.

“He played 13, 14 years in the league and never won a title,” explained Lafata. “The one year we did win it, he wasn’t with the team. The league did a great job, with all the teams wearing ‘Number 5’ wristbands to remember him. He was a huge member of this league for a long time, and that’s what is special about this title.”

The Mariners played the first inning of every game this season with out a coach at third base, Knowlton’s usual spot during game time, as a way of honoring his memory. Now, his memory will forever be tied to that of his team achieving its ultimate goal. “It was a terrible thing to happen, and it definitely hit all of these guys,” said Lafata. “To win that with Jared in mind was huge.”