Setting the Stage
It was a baseball fans dream. Five games in three days. Who could argue with that setup? The Northeast 10 Conference Championship Tournament wasn't supposed to be terribly close. Division II powerhouse, Franklin Pierce, has found themselves amongst the top 25 teams in the country all season long; entering the tournament ranked seventh in the nation. The other five teams in the tournament weren't supposed to be able to compete. Well, someone forgot to explain that fact to them. What was supposed to be a five-day double elimination tournament, was reduced to a three-day single elimination format as a result of impending weather. This format alone, lends itself to upsets, but nobody could have forseen what was about to happen. After the favored seeds (UMass-Lowell and Southern Connecticut) took care of business in round one, Friday brought the shockers. Southern Connecticut took out second seed Stonehill College 5-1, and UMass managed to hold the powerful Franklin Pierce lineup at bay, winning 2-1. The end result; a championship game featuring the third and fourth seeds, teams nobody expected to see facing off in the finals. It should be noted that the Northeast 10 is actually a wood bat league, which changes the entire scope of the strategy involved. On to the highlights from LaLacheur Park in Lowell, MA.
• Despite being a northen climate, Division II conference, the Northeast 10 still packs some potential professional punch. The league's top player, Garrett Olson of Franklin Pierce, didn't have a long stay in the tournament, but you could still see the tools that will likely make him a top five or six round choice. Olson heads into the national tournaments with a .355/.412/.610 line. Garrett's approach at the plate is sound, smooth, and under control. He generates very good gap power with a quick and compact swing that he can get on the balls in any part of the zone. He doesn't have natural loft to his swing, but he could still develop more homerun power. His offensive calling card will likely be a lot of doubles, a high average, and a few stolen bases. Defensively, Olson can play both short and third, and he plays both very well, with good actions and a gun for an arm. He'll probably be the first or second Division II player off the board on draft day, so keep an eye out.
• UMass-Lowell isn't really a hotbed for professional talent, but they currently have one player who will draw some interest both this year, and next. Closer Pat Donovan doesn't have size on his side at only 5-9, 190 pounds, but he still throws a solid 88-90 mph fastball with good sink and some very good off-speed stuff. Donovan has an extremely deceptive delivery, and is a lot tougher than his stature would suggest. In 32.2 relief innings this season, Pat has a 0.55 ERA and 12 saves. He'll be hard pressed to get a legitimate look this season, but with another dominant season in 2007, some team is likely to take a flyer on him later in the draft.
• The tourney's top pitching talent was Stonehill ace Billy Sittig. Sittig took the loss against Southern Connecticut, struggling with his control on a raw and rainy day. Control is never really Billy's strong point, but he really seemed out of sorts on this day. With a fastball that touches 94, and sits comfortably in the 90-92 range, Billy will certainly be drafted this summer. He lacks a true out pitch, and must refine his off-speed stuff to have a chance at a successful pro career. Look for Sittig to go somewhere around the 15th round, or maybe a little later.
• The championship game's top offensive player was Southern Connecticut's Jose Ortiz. Ortiz is a junior transfer from UConn-Avery Point, and is Southern's top offensive threat. Having batted .406 on the season, Jose was also one of the Northeast 10's leading offensive threats. Ortiz has a very discerning eye at the plate, with surprising power, and the ability to make contact with just about any pitch. He can drive any ball hard, to all parts of the field. He doesn't generate homerun power, but will rack up doubles with his line drive stroke. Toning up his body would likely help his entire game quite a bit. He's currently an average runner with decent instincts in the field, but taking his conditioning more seriously would improve his chances at a pro career tremendously. The college ranks are full of guys that can hit, so Ortiz will need to step up the other parts of his game to get a shot. His attitude problems aren't going to help him any either, but they won't be an issue if he doesn't improve the rest of his skills.
• The last thing I'm going to highlight in detail is a situation from the first inning of the Championship game between Southern Connecticut and UMass-Lowell. UMass centerfielder Tim Manton laid down a bunt with a runner on first and nobody out; not a sacrifice bunt, but rather an attempt at a hit. The bunt trickled down the third base line, rolled foul for a split second, then back fair. Southern third baseman Jose Ortiz, thought he grabbed the ball during it's brief trip to foul territory, but the home plate umpire felt otherwise (and I agree). Watching the play, it was a very hard bunt, one that if Ortiz had picked it up instantly, he likely could have turned two instead of begging for it to go foul. Granted, the run UMass-Lowell scored in the first didn't end up being overly critical, but that double play may have meant some saved pitches and another inning from staff ace Justin Cox.
With so much baseball to comment on from this tournament, I'm going to change up the format of this section. I'll end it with some quick hits...SCSU's Michael Diaz could shock some people come the 2008 draft. He's very quick, drives the ball, and has a strong arm at short...Justin Cox of SCSU is only a sophomore, but with a fastball that touched 90, and the makings of a dominant curve, he could make some draft noise before it's all done...UMass-Lowell's Mark Sakelakos is another promising young pitcher. He's got the frame, the fastball, and the ability to make it sink to be a very good pitcher down the road...Another Franklin Pierce offensive star may get some attention for the draft. Elliot Shea hits for average, draws walks, has a little pop, and is very fast...FP also has two other guys to keep an eye on. Ace Shane Presutti had a 34.1 inning scoreless streak this season, and a 1.29 ERA for the season. Freshman Scott Savastano led the team in hitting, and profiles as one of the top D-II players in the country over the next couple of years...UMass-Lowell head coach Ken Harring was tossed in the third inning of the Championship game, a move that seemed to spark some intensity in a very tired Lowell dugout. He was tossed for screaming some rather comical things that I cannot mention in this column...
Next up 'At the Game' - Division III New England Regionals at Harwich, MA (Tentative)