With the bulk of last year’s state title group no longer in uniform for the Gershkoff Auto Body/Auburn Post 20 American Legion team, raising a second consecutive trophy was going to be difficult.
And when Gershkoff lost its opening game of the eight team, double-elimination playoff tournament to Senerchia last Tuesday, the task became even harder.
Still, Gershkoff battled, winning two games to reach the state’s final four before bowing out to New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 on Saturday 5-2.
That ended its season, one in which in went 16-5-1 during the regular season and earned the No. 5 seed for the playoffs.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Gershkoff manager Dave Schiappa said. “No one picked us to make it this far, and we lost a lot of players from last year. Definitely a good year.”
Once Gershkoff lost that fist game, it was tasked with having to win six games over the next five days to capture the title.
It started out well, knocking off No. 2 seed R&R Construction on Wednesday before coming back Friday to take down No. 3 seed Upper Deck-Post 86/14 5-2.
Bob D’Arezzo was dominant against R&R, striking out nine and scattering six hits in eight strong innings. Joe Nicolace had a huge day at the plate, going 5-for-6 with a double, a triple and two RBI.
Rich Reo dazzled on the mound against Upper Deck, as he allowed two runs in the first inning and nothing else over the next seven. Offensively, Gershkoff scored three in the first to take control right off the bat and it added two more in the seventh when John Razzino hit a two-run home run to left-centerfield.
That set up the showdown with NEFL, the state’s top seed, in the final four on Saturday afternoon.
Kyle Tracy started on the mound and cruised through the first four innings while allowing just two hits and no runs.
In the top of the first, Gershkoff went ahead 1-0 when Razzino tripled to open the game and then came around on a wild pitch from NEFL starter Kyle Fitzsimmons two batters later.
But scoring early was not a sign of things to come.
“We just didn’t get the key hits,” Schiappa said. “We didn’t hit the ball like we have.”
Fitzsimmons kept Gershkoff off-balance most of the way, working around a two-out hit in the second, a two-out hit in the third, a leadoff walk in the fourth and a two-on nobody out jam in the fifth.
In the bottom of the fifth, after Tracy had kept Gershkoff up 1-0, NEFL came alive. Lee Verrier got things started with a one-out single, and he advanced to third on a single by T.J. Boyajian. Nick McGuirl then lined one into right field, scoring Verrier to tie the score at one apiece.
A wild pitch brought home Boyajian, and an infield single by Teddy Dwyer two batters later scored a third run. Gershkoff found itself trailing by two.
Making matters worse was an injury to Razzino, the team’s center fielder and leadoff hitter. He grounded out in the third inning and re-aggravated a hamstring injury running down the line.
That forced him to move to first base, and NEFL took advantage of his limited range. On Verrier’s double in the fifth, the ball was softly hit to Razzino’s left near the bag and could have been an out, but he simply couldn’t get over in time.
Razzino was also picked off as he tried to advance on a bunt attempt in the fifth inning, and once he was in the rundown he had almost no chance to get out of it with his injury.
“When he went down it hurt us,” Schiappa said. “He’s a make or break guy. That’s what happens.”
Fitzsimmons stayed in control, getting past a leadoff walk in the seventh. He retired one man in the eighth but allowed singles to Matt Pagano and Nicolace, making way for Kevin Hickey.
Hickey escaped, getting a pop out from D’Arezzo and a groundout from Tyler Collins to escape the jam.
“We just didn’t get key hits,” Schiappa said. “We didn’t hit the ball. It’s hard to score one run and win a game.”
Tracy left the game after 6.2 innings, as he was relieved by Taylor Pacific, who finished out the eighth.
Tracy allowed the three runs – two earned – on six hits to go along with three walks and six strikeouts.
“He pitched a great game,” Schiappa said. “He pitched like a workhorse. He did exactly what he was supposed to do.”
In the bottom of the eighth, NEFL picked up two important insurance runs off of Pacific. With one out, Mike Giard was hit by a pitch and Cole Furney ran for him at first base. Mike Mallozzi followed that with a double to center field, and a single by Branden Hoxsie scored Furney to make the score 4-1.
Verrier singled as well, bringing home Mallozzi to extend the lead to 5-1. Brandon Budlong was brought on in relief to get the final two outs, and he did, but the deficit was now four for Gershkoff entering its last at-bats.
After the first two men were retired, Gershkoff did manage to put together a push. Razzino walked and Rob DeCosta laced a double to center field to score a run, making it 5-2.
But with the tying run in the on-deck circle, Pagano struck out, bringing Gershkoff’s summer to an end.
“It was just one of those games where we didn’t get it done with the bat,” Schiappa said. “It is what it is. I’m proud of these guys for getting here.”
NEFL went on to lose to Navigant Credit Union/Post 85 later that day. Navigant captured the state championship on Sunday with two wins over previously unbeaten Senerchia Post 74.