The clock is suddenly ticking on the struggling Silver Knights
NASHUA – Sunday was one of those picture-perfect, sun splashed late afternoons/early evenings at Holman Stadium.
The thousand or so fans who watched the Nashua Silver Knights battle the Bristol Blues were certainly entertained, especially when Knights manager B.J. Neverett went out to argue a crucial call at second base while trying to protect one of his best players, shortstop Cody Morissette. Fans love it when the skipper stands up for his team, to the point of getting tossed.
But the problem? It was another loss, the team’s 19th in their first 30 games. The seven-team, 56-game FCBL 2018 regular season is being played to eliminate one team from the playoffs.
Right now, if the season were to end today, that team would be the 11-19 two-time defending champion Silver Knights.
What’s happened? A combination of things, it seems.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Silver Knights manager B.J. Neverett said. “The kids have been great. The umpiring has been very poor; we’ve taken a beating with that. It’s been frustrating on the field, we just don’t have a lot of luck. We have to fight for everything we get.”
Nashua after Sunday’s loss was last in the league in runs scored with 147, a key factor. The Silver Knights are next to last in extra base hits. The Silver Knights for awhile had been last in fielding percentage but have since risen to fourth. They’re third in hitting at .260, but the above stats make that deceptive. The Knights are also third in pitching with a team ERA of 4.17, but as Neverett alluded Sunday, a lot of that is due to a bullpen that is now being overtaxed.
But when you look at it all, what’s the common denominator? Youth. Remember, last year’s Nashua team had a core group of veterans, some who were title winners in 2016, so when it came down to crunch time and playing two straight elimination games on the road (last regular season game at Seacoast, play-in game at Pittsfield), they were able to put it together en route to a championship.
This team has a ton of players who will be underclassmen next season – 17 either freshmen or sophomores.
From the second week of the season, once Neverett had an idea of exactly what he had, he has been stressing just how inexperienced this team is. Heck, all-purpose player Nick Biddison (Va. Tech incoming freshman, gone this week for orientation) and Boston College-bound Mason Pelio are both only 17 years old.
“The thing is, I said it at the very beginning, I think we’re really young,” he said. “It’s kind of panned out that way.”
Especially defensively. It took the team about 15 games or so to settle on Cody Morissette at shortsop, and it took until the third week in June while waiting for him to graduate from Exeter before he could be eligible to play. Then he was gone for a few days for orientation at Boston College. Those are a couple of the drawbacks to the incoming freshmen.
Morissette is a valuable player, hitting .377 while just showing great instincts. Nashua needs more like him.
“Our defense isn’t good,” Neverett said. “Our defense is young. And that causes us problems. It doesn’t help. It’s hard to pitch here. We’ve had guys who have thrown really well, get ground balls when they need to, and don’t make a play.”
That has put the team’s offense and pitching on the defensive, constantly facing the urgency to bounce back from early deficits – or to try to put teams away. Saturday night’s loss at Bristol typified the Silver Knights’ woes, as they had leads of 2-0 and 6-4 (rallying from down 4-2) before imploding in the sixth inning (five runs allowed) en route to a 9-6 loss.
That was systematic of what is now becoming a problem: Neverett has to go to his bullpen too early, as he alluded after Sunday’s loss.
“We can’t keep going to the bullpen in the fourth or fifth inning,” he said. “That will kill us.”
But when it all boils down, those issues can be overcome if the Silver Knights were better at one key thing: Driving in runs.
“Offensively, we’re very inconsistent,” Neverett said. “Some days we look like the ’27 Yankees, and other days it’s like different kids, a different team.”
“We need to consistently put togther good at bats with runners in scoring position,” Silver Knights oufielder Luke Tyree said. “I feel one of the reasons why we’re losing is just because we get guys on but then can’t hit (them in).”
Sunday was a perfect example of the luck and lack of clutch hitting. White was robbed of an extra base hit that would have driven in two runs by a great defensive play. Jeff Costello had the tying runs at second and third in the bottom of the ninth but grounded out on a 3-2 pitch.
Neverett has tried to fix this a little, bringing in big boppers Jake Lebel and Alex Brickman. Brickman is platooning at first, but really hasn’t caught fire yet the way he did last year with North Shore. But the tell-tale sign: Lebel leads the team in RBIs with 17 – and he just arrived nearly three weeks ago.
Injuries also have taken their toll. First baseman Thomas Joyce – a key returnee from last year – as well as third baseman Tom Blandini and potential ace lefty starter Pat Maybach are all out indefinitely with injuries.
“He was really good,” Neverett said. “Two starts, zero ERA.”
Another starter, Spencer Bergeron, is also hurting. The team has been buoyed by starter Brandon Dufault (Windham, Northeastern 1.56 ERA) and the grit of Luke Dawson (tops on the team in innings with 32). But the Knights need more.
Neverett has found ways in the past in his other role as VP of Player Personnel to circumvent disaster. He’s been a master at finding replacements when needed – speedy outfielder Austin White is an example. And late in the season, he finds players who have played in leagues that have concluded their seasons and want to keep playing for another couple of weeks or so.
But will that work this time? It remains to be seen. The Silver Knights have won two consecutive games just once – June 22 and June 25, with two rainouts in between.
That speaks to consistency.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Tyree said. “But it happens. You just have to get better for the next day.
“I think once it gets closer to playoff time, we’ll be able to play better. … We know we’re good, we’re all just expecting (a turnaround).”
But that will be easier said than done.
North Shore, Nashua’s chief competition for that last of six playoff spots, put four wins together to go just a half game up on Nashua, staying their even though the Navs lost to Martha’s Vineyard on Sunday. They were slated to be at Bristol on Monday, while Nashua was off.
But now the schedule doesn’t help. The Silver Knights have two doubleheaders this week, at least at home. Tuesday’s is huge, because it’s against the Navs, beginning at 4:05 p.m. Thursday’s won’t be easy with first place Martha’s Vineyard (21-8 before last night) coming to town.
Then there’s a six-game road trip right after next Tuesday’s big FCBL All-Star Game /Holman Birthday Celebration. Coupled with the All-Star break, Nashua won’t be home after Friday’s game vs. Worcester until Thursday, July 26, a span of nearly two weeks. Ouch.
“Those four days off at the break (July 15-18) will be huge,” Neverett said.
Clearly, that just adds up to the things that have gone against the Silver Knights. Certainly a change.
“You win two championships in a row, and all of that, what we needed to do, has turned around for this team,” Neverett said. “We’re getting nothing. They (last year’s players) were able to pull it together because they were veterans.
“I personally feel bad because the fans come here, they want us to be successful, and the standard’s high here. But I also feel bad the kids aren’t getting some of the successes. They’ve played well enough to get some; it’s just not happening.”
Effort, the manager says, is not the problem.
“The kids have been fantastic,” Neverett said. “They’re trying, they’re playing as hard as they can. We’re disappointed where we’re at.
“We’re just going to spend it one day at a time now, just try to get in a better position, that’s all.”
Well, the Silver Knights right now have nowhere to go but up. But now, as we approach mid-July, the clock is ticking.