|Wachusett pitcher Liv Strasser prepares to deliver against Doherty Thursday.|
HOLDEN - Over the course of the first three innings, Wachusett Regional managed to strand five runners on base without producing a single run. Such a circumstance made you wonder if this was a prelude to the type of day the Mountaineers would endure against mighty Doherty.
In a battle between two of the state's heavyweight programs, and top-tier pitchers, Wachusett finally came up with an answer in its half of the fourth inning. The Mountaineers plated three runs during the frame and were able to fend off the Highlanders the rest of the way en route to a 3-1 triumph Thursday afternoon.
"No question these types of games are great for us," Mountaineers head coach Joe Cataldo said. "We know (Sylvester) is a great pitcher but we were finally able to put the bat on the ball. It is a big win, but we know we have another tough one on Saturday against St. Peter-Marian, so we'll see what happens."
With Doherty (3-1) and Wachusett (5-0) each entering this all-important tilt undefeated, pitching, timely hitting and strong defense would ultimately become the significant factors as to which club would hold up best. In the early going, it was the Highlanders who broke through first. Nicolette Genkos opened the Doherty second by ripping an opposite field triple into right. Wachusett pitcher Liv Strasser was able to settle down by retiring the next two Highlander batters before Nell Trainor roped a letter-high fastball up the middle for a single to make it 1-0 Doherty.
In the bottom half of the frame, the Mountaineers, with one out, loaded the bases on singles from Lizzie Miles and Kianna Lloyd followed by hit by pitch to Hallie Martin. But Doherty senior pitcher Payton Sylvester (6 hits, 5 Ks) did not appear phased by any of it as she sat down the next two Wachusett batters to keep the Highlanders on top.
With one out in the Mountaineers' third, back-to-back singles by Courtney Lampher and Strasser had Wachusett threatening yet again. After both runners having moved up a base following a ground out, Sylvester induced Miles to strike out, ending the frame.
But Sylvester's tight-rope act would run out in the fourth. Throughout the early season, Wachusett has made it a of habit of being aggressive inside the batter's box. The Mountaineers (who have outscored their opponents 46-1) were not fearful of Sylvester. Instead, Wachusett continued to challenge her upon the realization that it could make contact against the hard-throwing right-hander.
"I'm a hitting instructor so we do a lot of hitting," Cataldo said. "These girls know that if they look at strike three they may not be starting in the next game. I want the bats swung. Bat on the ball, no matter where it is, makes things happen. The girls play so aggressive because they do not want to look at strike three. This whole crew that I have here loves to swing the bats and run the bases. It is a good mindset to have."
In the pivotal fourth, Wachusett followed its coach's strategy. Lloyd opened by driving a fastball into center for a single. With Martin now at the plate, the senior tried to lay down a bunt but fouled off the pitch. On Sylvester's next offering, and with the bunt sign off, Martin drove an inside fastball well over the left field fence to stake the Mountaineers out to a 2-1 advantage.
"I guess it was sort of a blessing in disguise, because I messed up that bunt attempt," said Martin. "The next pitch came in. I just saw it and hit it. The moment it came off the bat I knew it was going over the fence. It was incredible in the sense that we knew that was what we needed to get our team up. Sylvester was good, and was throwing fast, so we knew we needed to get some hits off of her in order to beat them because Doherty is a really good team."
The Mountaineers weren't finished. Two outs later, Cammi Sperling lofted a ball into shallow centerfield that fell in front of centerfielder Natalie Barrera. Never slowing down on the base paths, the speedy Sperling wound up on third base with a triple. Moments later, the senior came home on Lampher's infield single, putting Wachusett ahead by a pair.
However, the Division 1 state runners-up refused to go quietly. In the top of the sixth, Strasser developed a bit of wildness after walking Nikki Sereti and Sylvester. A Genkos fielder's choice resulted in Sereti being thrown out at third. Another fielder's choice, this time by Emma Brennan, led to a Sylvester force out at third base. After Samantha Baldino reached safely on an error to load the bases, Strasser now had her work cut out for her. But the senior bore down by getting Trainor to fly out and snuff out the would be comeback attempt.
"Strasser is a very good pitcher and Wachusett is a very good team," Doherty head coach Phil Spellane said. "They can swing the bats. This was our first true test of the season so it is good to play in a tight game like this. Sure I would have liked to have won it but I feel these types of games makes you better in the long run. Payton pitched well for us but they cashed in during that fourth inning. I thought we hit the ball well today but they caught it most of the time."
Strasser came out for the seventh and proceeded to retire the Highlanders in order to record the victory.
"I know that even if I let up a run we can still come back and score runs," said Strasser, who allowed four hits and struck out eight. "Going up someone like (Sylvester) gives me more motivation to throw even harder. She is a very good pitcher so it is fun to pitch in games like this."